My otherwise very dear friend keeps undermining me – what to do?
March 27, 2016 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I've been friends with a wonderful person for over a decade. We've shared lots of our lives, and I consider her one of my closest friends. However, there's something about her behaviour that's been confusing and upsetting me for a long time. Whenever I discuss my romantic problems with her (and I've been through a fair bit recently – my past questions here might testify to that), I almost always end up feeling worse. We both had major self-esteem issues when we were younger, and I feel as though whenever I show that I'm feeling stronger these days, she tries to undermine me. Snowflakes below...

So – three months after leaving my boyfriend late last year, I met a guy who seemed miraculous (gorgeous, extraordinarily smart, into me). I fell for him very quickly – I'm sure that my subconscious mechanism was 'this man will save me from any more pain of losing my beloved boyfriend!' It was classic rebound stuff.

I went on holiday, still extremely keen on him. While I was away, he appeared to be losing interest, so I just asked him what was going on. He was furious – in a dismissive, curt answer, he told me I was obviously hard work, and that the fact I was asking this question made him want to run a mile. To be fair to him, we'd only been on a few dates and I must have sounded quite needy to be asking such a thing, but at the same time, we'd already had sex and we'd already said we liked each other, so I guess I thought there was something there. His response made me feel humiliated and angry. I apologised and haven't heard a thing from him since – it's been well over a month.

My anger and humiliation have dissipated a lot – I have other things to think about, but occasionally I'm still surprised and upset by how harsh his response was. It didn't help that it happened straight after a very painful break-up.

But in any case, this question isn't about him, it's about my friend, and how she undermines my feelings. The above situation will become relevant again soon, I promise! So, she's been living at my place for a few months. Her long-term boyfriend kicked her out. He is a vile person – he isolates her, has verbally abused her in the past, constantly manipulates her, flies off the handle all the time about the tiniest of things, hates the fact she has a social life, hates the fact she has friends (he doesn't have any), and will say anything to keep her. Both myself and her other best friend loathe this guy – in the four years they've been together, I've seen him about three times and he won't look me in the eye, is extremely rude (or possibly shy) and has made no effort with any of us.

She keeps trying to leave him, he promises to change, and thus he reels her back in. This has happened about five times since she's been staying at mine. She knows what I feel about him, but since we're both conflict avoidant and I care for her very much, my rule now is I that don't intervene in her choices. It becomes too uncomfortable. This goes for her other best friend too. When we tried to intervene, she felt under attack and resented us for it. She obviously has reasons for staying with him (she wants kids, she's 35, he'll never leave her, they have a lot of things in common, they're still attracted to one another, he's very smart) – I personally think he's an absolute nightmare, but I'm not going to push my point anymore at the risk of ruining a very long and important friendship. It's already come close. So now we just don't really talk about him. She seems to be happy at mine, though – she gets a lot of space.

The past few weeks, I've been talking to her about how upset this rebound guy has made me. On some level, I need her to agree that he must have issues to have behaved so harshly towards me. She never says this, though. Instead, she always says "well, he just didn't want to deal with your emotions" and "he doesn't want to think about you" and "he did what he needed to do – that's his prerogative". That's as far as it gets. I can't get out of her what I seem to really want, which is to say that he behaved poorly towards me, shut me down, over-reacted himself, and I deserve better. Of course I know it, so I don't know why I need her to say it! I just seem to find myself in these conversations with her where before I know it, she's defending him, and then I can't bear it and start pushing for the opposite. Every time, I wish I'd never started the conversation, but it's hard when you're chewing over something that hurt you and you walk into your living room and your friend asks how you're doing – you are going to bring it up from time to time.

The greater point is that she's done this repeatedly over the years. If a man has treated me poorly, she'll very subtly defend their actions. It's usually done simply by denying me what I'm looking for in the conversation – e.g. refusing to agree that the guy has the issues, or that I deserve better. Instead, she'll take their side in a very subtle way - often by making it clear that he's got every right not to have any empathy towards me, or to consider me, or to be kind to me. This happened again and again as I played out my low self-esteem issues with various men over the past decade, gradually fumbling towards greater self-compassion and consciousness. She couldn't do it with my ex because he and I already held each other in high esteem and nothing could knock that, but in the past, she did it repeatedly. At this point in my life, I think there's no reason on earth she can't just say to me, "yep, that guy's got issues, and you deserve better" rather than saying, "he's got every right to treat you like that, and you can suck it up." It's beginning to really get to me. I regret talking to her about my love life, but it's such an ingrained habit that I find it almost impossible to put this boundary down.

it's a sort of unspoken thing that her choice of boyfriend – and choosing to stay with him – is due to her own low self-esteem, which I think is the elephant in the room here. She's often been a huge source of comfort and sympathy to me, but when this particular tic of hers keeps recurring, I think about who she chooses to be with and wonder why she needs to undermine me whenever she gets the chance. I wonder if it makes her feel validated in her choices, or if she likes to see me go back to feeling my old low self-esteem, because it makes her feel better in some way about her own? But that's toxic, which I can't wrap my head around.

I'm so angry at her for this, but a) she's living at mine right now b) she's otherwise amazing and c) we're so conflict avoidant - we've barely had one argument in our decade of friendship. I *know* I need to just stop talking to her about my love life. That seems like the only thing for it  – otherwise she'll keep undermining me and making me feel like shit. It's really aggrieving me. It's upsetting me far more than the silly guy I had the rebound with. Has anyone got any suggestions for how to make yourself put down a boundary with someone when you've spent years *not* having it? Is it just a matter of reminding myself never to talk to her about my love life? Hmm. Thank you!
posted by considerthelilies to Human Relations (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You say she's otherwise amazing but haven't shown us any of her good traits. That's a pretty huge red flag right there, in addition to the fact that you're now willing to remind yourself never to talk to her about your love life. This to a so-called friend that you are letting live with you while she goes on and off again with a verbally abusive boyfriend while also undermining your own choices and defending those that hurt you. Think of how that sounds to anyone who is not you.
posted by mermaidcafe at 6:02 PM on March 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

Sorry, I'm not gonna thread-sit, but on re-reading my post (very tiredly) it's clear the real issue here is my friend's relationship with her boyfriend. To reiterate: her other best friend and I have done every single thing we can to suggest she leave him, but she won't. When I read the above, that's the thing that truly jumps out.

Also, I haven't gone into depth about her good traits because I sort of assume people are here to read about the problem, and can take my word for it she's otherwise an absolutely excellent person. I really hope they can. I can enumerate such traits if necessary, but it's easier for anyone responding to take my word for it that great people can also be conflicted and deeply flawed – and find themselves in complex and difficult situations.
posted by considerthelilies at 6:03 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think there's no reason on earth she can't just say to me, "yep, that guy's got issues, and you deserve better" rather than saying, "he's got every right to treat you like that, and you can suck it up."

I think she's casting her low self-esteem doom and gloom cloud over you, too. That is she seems incapable of even thinking that she deserves someone better than her very difficult partner. I'm not sure the words "I deserve someone better" could even pass her lips without extreme cognitive dissonance. Which is why it's pretty much inconceivable that she could utter the same sentiment about you.

But if you want to gently confront, next time she gives a response that sounds sympathetic to the guy you were dating and not sympathetic to you, you could try saying "Why are you on his side?"
posted by puddledork at 6:07 PM on March 27, 2016 [20 favorites]

It sounds like she's miserable with her boyfriend and she's worried about somehow losing you to a friend, and thus being really alone, so she tries to undermine your relationships with other people.

So, yeah, since you listed your friend's boyfriend's attempts to isolate her as something that makes him a terrible partner, you should take a close look at how your friend might be doing the same thing to you. So often we recognize bad things that are being done to other people without realizing that they are being done to us.
posted by Fister Roboto at 6:14 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

She's clearly in her own unstable and awful relationship that she can't even come to terms with or see through the fog. How do you expect her to tell you that you deserve better when she can't even realize it herself? You're asking for intelligent, mature, wise, relationship advice from someone who is not in a good relationship. These things just won't mix.

I'm sorry but you won't get what you want from this person in this context. It just can't happen. She just can't give you that "he's a jackass, you deserve better" because she doesn't know it herself with her own jackass.

If she is such a good friend, then just drop the relationship discussion from your friendship. I know we all want that true best friend that we can talk about anything with and they always have our back, but it's not realistic. Hell, even my husband and I have things we disagree on. (Not to mention the time one of my friends said my health problems must be "due to stress." Yeah, learned my lesson to not mention it to them and kept it brief if they asked.)

Perhaps you can find a friend that you can talk about these relationships with. However, if you do, I would also suggest letting them know that you're venting and looking for encouragement. Let them know that you aren't looking for them to solve your problems or play devil's advocate. Part of the issue is you're expecting her to read your mind and give you what you want - but again I think regardless she's incapable of doing that when it comes to this topic.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:16 PM on March 27, 2016 [33 favorites]

I am somewhat similar to your friend. In fact to show how similar I am I imagined her point of view (sorry about that). When I am in a situation like this I sometimes find myself defending or wanting to defend the relative stranger as I know what my friend can be like and can imagine the other person acting they way they did without having to be a horrid or crazy person. For myself, and maybe your friend too, I try to imagine and everyone's point of view involved and try not too assume too much. A relevant example is the Subway story where a man traveling is with his horribly behaved children on the train and a stranger rudely tells him to control their behavior only to have the same man apologize and share that they just left the hospital where his wife died and now he's facing raising his kids on his own. Bam. A sea change of perspective.
Everyone in the world has their own backstory and unique perspective. Maybe the guy was a jerk, maybe he wasn't. We can all behave better. I do my best to just say, "yeah that must have sucked" "I am so sorry you were hurt" when my friends are venting to me. Like your friend I have a hard time judging someone as worthless or mentally ill based on a few incidents. It doesn't mean that I don't support or love my friend. You are asking her to make you feel better and validate you by insulting and putting down someone else (the guy who may or may not deserve it). Maybe there is a way you can get the support you need from her in a more positive way? What if she told you that she will always be there for you? That she loves you no matter what and that you deserve to be happy and be with someone who loves you and treats you well?
posted by saradarlin at 6:17 PM on March 27, 2016 [11 favorites]

I don't think your issue is her relationship, and if it is, the answer to that is painful but simple: you can't make her do anything she doesn't want to do, she knows what you think, so there's nothing else for you to do.

I think your issue is what you said it was. You're unhappy with the way she responds when you complain about the way men treat you. I would say two things. First, you don't respect the way she operates her love life, so why would you expect her to suddenly get yours right? You wouldn't ask someone who you thought couldn't cook how to cook; don't go to her for relationship advice. But if you do, at least tell her how this makes you feel. Tell her, "[Friend], all I'm looking for is some support, and I feel like you're bending over backwards to see it from his side." Some people are like this - their natural inclination is to try to see whatever side you're not focused on. If it's not what you need, tell her so! She might surprise you.

But in any event, please don't assume she's undermining you to force you to share her misery or whatever unless you've at least let her try to do better. She may really think you are contributing to these situations and may think she's helping by telling you so. She may just not hear herself. She may have internalized assumptions about how people deserve to be treated that she's applying to both her relationships and yours.

Give her a chance. Open a channel and talk to her about how this makes you feel. It seems too early in the game to decide she's doing this out of spite or jealousy or whatever. Start with talking, or try just going to other friends for this.

You're okay here. You want reassurance and she's not giving it to you - she doesn't have to be a bad friend for that to happen.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:17 PM on March 27, 2016 [18 favorites]

Thought I should add, based on your follow up, that I don't have low self esteem and am married to a wonderful man who loves me and treats me well so I don't think I'm coming from a place of hostility or jealousy.
posted by saradarlin at 6:19 PM on March 27, 2016

How do you expect her to tell you that you deserve better when she can't even realize it herself?

Repeated for truth. What she's telling you about your ex-dude is what she tells herself about hers.
posted by sallybrown at 6:31 PM on March 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

Really puzzled as to how you expect someone who can't give herself a you're-better-off-without-him pep talk, to give you one. She sounds like she generally lacks self respect in the context of romantic relationships and doesn't really have the emotional vocabulary to call upon to give you what you want here.

You know who can though? AskMeFi. You're better off without him! Good for you for being able to see it. Now stop picking at your poor friend, it isn't her fault she can't see things this way. This is how she runs her own emotional life, and it sucks, but it isn't about you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:36 PM on March 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

If you have a friend who's blue-green colour blind, that's not the friend you take to choose between shades of teal.

Your friend is relationship blind. Whatever's happened in her life experience and background, she puts herself in the guy's shoes. I think you have two options, really. One is to stop her each time she is talking about you like "blah blah blah good guy," and you put your hand up and says gently, "I need you to take my side right now." If she does, you continue the conversation. If not, you don't.

The alternative is just don't talk about relationships with her. But find a friend where you can because man that guy was a jerk to you.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:06 PM on March 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I can't get out of her what I seem to really want, which is to say that he behaved poorly towards me, shut me down, over-reacted himself, and I deserve better.

Regardless of how self-evidently true it is that this guy sucked, it does read as a little condescending/ unfair that you seem to basically have pre-scripted your friend's responses for her, and are then angry when she goes off script. I guess there's a certain type of friendly support that consists of sycophantically repeating back to someone exactly what they want to hear, regardless of one's own real opinions; but it doesn't sound as though she's of a disposition or in an emotional place to provide that type of support. As various others above have said, you clearly (and probably rightly) don't have much respect for her native judgment in relationship matters anyway, so I kind of don't blame her for pushing back a bit against your clear desire for her to deliver a certain type of prepackaged affirmation.

Rather than framing this as her "undermining" you, a more charitable reading of the situation might be:
-- Your friend is in kind of a bad place w/r/t relationships right now;
-- Therefore, she clearly does not have the extra energy handy to perform emotional labor for you surrounding relationship issues.
-- So, as a friend, it'd be kind for you to let her temporarily off the hook in performing that emotional labor, and try to give her structured ways to still be a good friend to you without needing to perform this type of emotional management.
posted by Bardolph at 7:07 PM on March 27, 2016 [29 favorites]

I think she just has certain habits of thoughts and attitudes about relationships and how they go and she applies this way of thinking and feeling equally to her own relationship and yours and probably every relationship she might think about. So she's not picking on you per se but basically saying the same thing to you that she might say to herself in the same situation. It's just how she actually thinks.
posted by flug at 7:09 PM on March 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Your friend needs to put on her own oxygen mask before she is able to help you with your problems. Maybe if she sorts out her own relationship issues it'll turn out that she's actually just a shitty friend and that you shouldn't ask her for support in your relationship dramas regardless of her own situation, but at this point I would just avoid these sorts of discussions with her. She is clearly incapable of supporting you.
posted by gatorae at 7:10 PM on March 27, 2016

This woman is defending her own relationship issues through yours. If she was capable of thinking you deserved a man who treated you better, she'd have to admit the same thing about herself and she's not ready to do it. At least you can see this much about your ex, so you're already on the path to a better relationship with the right man. Your friend is stuck where she is and it seems that's where she will stay.

I think you need to start looking for healthier relationships, both with friends and partners. A friend who keeps trying to drag you down, for whatever reason, isn't a great choice for you. I certainly wouldn't want to live with them.

What's more, what happens when you finally find a great guy who treats you well and you're happy!? I can't imagine it will go down well with your friend at all, she seems invested in both of you being miserable together. Maybe it's time she found somewhere else to live, this dynamic doesn't seem to be working for either of you.
posted by Jubey at 7:28 PM on March 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Possibilities that came to mind:
A. She's acting out of her resentment for you because of how little you think of her relationship with her guy (whether or not she agrees with you deep down).
B. She doesn't realize how she sounds because she's kinda awkward about these things. My best friend can be really awkward this way and there were a few times when she said things like you describe, and I had to take her aside and say, "Hey, this guy hurt me, I need to be really mad at him right now, punch pillows, etc. and later I can think about things from his angle, do self work, etc." That did the trick.
C. She does realize that you don't like hearing these responses and is specifically doing this so that you don't come to her with relationship issues. (Trying to set boundaries, albeit in a hurtful way).
D. She has such low self-esteem that when she tries to put herself in your place, she projects that lack of regard for herself into your situation and through that lens concludes that the guy is blame-free and she/you deserves whatever happens. She really doesn't understand how much this drives you up the wall because she thinks she's helping.

IMHO you have been a stellar friend in providing her with a place to stay(!) and being honest about what you think about her boyfriend, then dropping the subject. The hard part about being the kind of good friend you are is that the friend dating the a**hole is going to feel embarrassed around you for as long as she continues to date him, and maybe even after. It's unfair to you, and I'm sorry. But, re: conflict avoidance...if you can't communicate, in a level-headed, nonjudgemental way about how this hurts your feelings, then what is friendship for? If you were doing something that made someone feel the way you're feeling right now, wouldn't you want to know and have a chance to work it out with them or clarify what you meant? Can you give her that chance? If not, do you want to move forward with the friendship?
posted by Pearl928 at 7:32 PM on March 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Some people don't understand that often when we're venting about someone or a situation that has hurt us, we want to be listened to, comforted, and have our feelings validated. It is not the time to play Logical Robot, psychotherapist, or Devil's Advocate. You're supposed to give your friends the benefit of the doubt. It's an unspoken social code and it feels shitty when it's broken.

I don't know why your friend is doing this to you. Does she react the same way when you vent about other things? Like work conflicts? If she does, then perhaps she's too self-absorbed to be interested in giving you the emotional support you need. Or maybe she thinks she needs to be Ms. Logic No-Feelings for whatever reason. Maybe she is envious of you and gets some satisfaction when she knocks you down a peg. If she's only like this when it comes to your romantic relationships, perhaps she's horribly sexist with a twisted view of power in male-female relationships. My mother is like this. She will defend or overlook the bad actions of any man, no matter how disgusting he is.
posted by Stonkle at 7:41 PM on March 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

You've already mentioned the simple solution here - don't talk to her about relationships - find someone else to talk to about them.
posted by heyjude at 7:53 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

When, in the past, I've acted the way your friend is acting, it wasn't because I couldn't sense that the other person wanted (a specific type of) sympathy. It was because something about the person or the type of sympathy they wanted irritated me so unbearably that I couldn't resist being contrary. Not particularly flattering to me, but there it is.

Consider that she probably feels that the way you talk (or pointedly not-talk) about her boyfriend is exactly the same denial of what she wants to hear. Like you, she probably has a specific narrative in mind that she wants to hear -- her boyfriend loves her and his ugly behavior is due to some specific cause beyond his control (fill in the blank) that will go away any day now. You haven't been willing to feed her this kind of comforting narrative (and, I mean, rightly so, because it's bullshit) but for that reason, she probably feels denied just as you do. So she may be unconsciously kicking back at you by resisting telling you what you want to hear.

Emotional support is important in a friendship, but if she gives it to you in other ways, I would just let this one lie. It does sometimes happen that overall good friendships have a few little resentments that just have to be steering around. You can't fix this on your own.

But, like, seriously, don't talk about this with her.
posted by ostro at 8:07 PM on March 27, 2016 [15 favorites]

That guy you dated sounds like an asshole!

Next time you want to talk to your friend, try saying this: "Hey, friend, you know what I really need from you now? Tell me that guy was a real asshole and I dodged a bullet."
posted by bluedaisy at 8:29 PM on March 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a daughter who sounds just like your friend. She's a pretty unsympathetic, unempathetic person, and I have called her on this many times and she will admit it readily. She may not be that way with everyone but she is with me. On the rare occasion that I grouse about someone, she is very dismissive of my concerns, and becomes a defender and an apologist for the other side. It is annoying as hell and I can well understand your frustration. You just want someone to commiserate with you once in a while. To let you rant and support you while you do. Like....a person who will say, "Yeah, friend, that really sucks, I get it" or "I know exactly how you feel, friend". Sounds like your friend is not one of those people for whatever reason. You can't change her, you can only change how you feel about how she responds. Or you can find someone else to talk to.
posted by the webmistress at 9:46 PM on March 27, 2016

You are getting a first hand look at the narration inside you friend's head that keeps her in her awful relationship. You cannot depend on her to support you in this arena when the words you need are the words she can't admit to herself.
posted by schroedinger at 10:27 PM on March 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

I get that this is a thing you're supposed to do as a friend - say "no man, he/she was stupid and awful and you are beautiful and great and perfect and deserve the world." But sometimes, it's just not true, and saying that sticks in your craw. To take this out of the realm of you - when I have a guy friend who's like "I mean, I bought her all these dinners/was such a good friend and she still didn't sleep with me", I cannot in good conscience wrap my mouth around a lie big enough to be like "what a bitch!" That doesn't mean I'm an underminer. That means if that particular friend wants to hear that he is right and all ladies are wrong, he needs to look elsewhere.

Likewise, yeah, a guy has a total right to bounce at any time, just like a woman does. He is not making a commitment by sleeping with you, that's not how Sex works in this day and age. Maybe your friend can't wrap her mouth around "This guy has issues, you deserve way better."

It could also be, if she has a shitty relationship, that you complaining about really minor issues while being unwilling to listen to her major ones comes off as insensitive and one-sided.
posted by corb at 11:37 PM on March 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

She is offering you the kind of support that she herself wants, and which you refuse to give to her--support in staying in a romantic relationship that is not great. I don't think you can expect her to say words she doesn't believe in any more than she can expect you to tell her that her terrible partner is a real catch (I'm more like you, but I have family that are more like your friend.). It sounds like romance in general is a topic that you need to bring to other friends instead of her.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:10 AM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Asking your friend for clear-eyed relationship advice is like asking an armless man to clap. She doesn't have the tools to do it.

Of course, YOU know that clod was not good enough for you. But how can she see it, when she can't see that HER clod isn't good enough for HER?

She's not undermining you on purpose, she's just not capable of offering you the comfort and support you need because she views the romantic world through a tragic prism. Where men are choosers, and women have to cater to them and put up with nonsense.

Instead of looking to her for comfort, model the behavior you'd like her to emulate. "That dope wasn't good enough for me. What a clod!" And happily move on.

Maybe she'll pick up on it, and do the same.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:26 AM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks everyone for your answers – this has been extremely illuminating, and your responses have shed light on things in ways that hadn't occurred to me at all up, which was exactly what I was looking for. It's giving me a lot to think about, which I very much appreciate. I also think I know what I need to do moving forward, so thanks again, all, for your useful, clear and sensible advice.

Also, as an aside, I love the word 'clod'. Thanks, Ruthless Bunny, for that – such a perfect, under-used word!
posted by considerthelilies at 10:54 AM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

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