How can I rectify a needy relationship? I was the needy one.
June 28, 2016 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Hello everyone, Gonna try to be as honest as possible so that I get better advice. I'd like insight, and not sympathy. (I mean, sympathy is nice, but truth first.) So, for the past few years, my life has not been ideal, I've moved a lot, had a lot of abusive jobs, and been super isolated. I've been trying to scrape my way out of it, but it's been difficult, and I recently reached a bad, dangerous point with my anxiety. I think I'm only now starting to get out of it. Through all of this, I had a very kind friend who was supportive and tried to help me through it. I didn't view her aid, or her sympathetic ear as out of the norm. I thought she was just being a friend...but I realize how, and this is in her own words, that she was feeling like a counselor, especially since I was not making fast improvement.

Recently, I felt strongly that she was avoiding me, and that her responses to me were curt or cold. I confronted her about this and told her that I was hurt by her responses, especially when she knew I was having a tough time. She apologized, and clearly felt hurt. She revealed to me that she had some changes happening with her family that she had said nothing about before. I felt ABSOLUTELY atrocious about this and sent her a bouquet the next day. She sent me an email basically telling me that I needed a counselor, and couldn't rely on her anymore and that she hoped to salvage the relationship, but needed to know she could trust me...she did specifically call me phobic and obsessive.

So what can I do guys? I do genuinely, deeply value her friendship and care for her. Not just because she supported me, but because I think she's a good person and I want her life to be happy. I am now in counseling (Which, I will say, I had been trying to get into for a LONG time. I wasn't trying to place all my damage on her, its just that my circumstances didn't really permit me to get the healthcare I needed.) My plan so far is as follows. I have completely stopped contact with her, since she asked for space, and I let her know I would do this and try to be respectful. In early September, I would like to simply send her an email that says

"Hey, I miss you, and I would love to be updated on your life and family. I hope that everything is going well, and that things are falling into place for you. I realize that in the last few years, I may have leaned too heavily on you, and taken advantage of your sympathy in a way that was unhealthy. It was not my intention at all, I simply didn't have the self-awareness at the time to understand that was what I was doing, and I didn't have the ability to see your discomfort. I value you as a friend outside of your ability to listen to my woes, and I would like to try and be helpful and kind in your life in the same way you once helped me. If you would like to try at this friendship again, I will do my utmost to keep my emotional world from affecting you. I'm undergoing counseling and I'm trying to learn to be a more centered, healthy person. If you will let me, I'd like to be there to support you now. If you find that you have lost interest in continuing things on, or you are wary of me, I will understand, and I will not push myself into your life. However, I would very much like the chance to rekindle the fun, warm, creative relationship we had. I would like to support you and engage with you in a healthy way the way we once did. Maybe we could start with emails and see if things work from there."

I don't know...this is sort of a rough draft/rough idea. I realized I made a mistake, but I was so close to this person, and believed she felt the same, and I am so, so sad that I exhausted her and made her feel harassed. Hopefully, one day I can make it right and regain some of her trust. I realize things can never be the same, but I would be really sad if she completely disappeared from my life. Does it sound like a reasonable step to back away until September (she said she wouldn't really want to talk until mid-August), and then simply send an email? Are there any other steps you might suggest I take? I've not been totally well lately, and I'm not blaming my illness for this, but I know some of my actions weren't...made from the most rational of places. Any advice guys?
posted by Rosengeist to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Good for you for respecting her wishes for space, getting help and doing some self-reflection. If you were to email her in the fall I'd keep it very brief as what you've written is basically requiring a bunch of emotional energy from your friend- which was the problem last time.
posted by noloveforned at 9:33 PM on June 28, 2016 [10 favorites]

noloveforned, how might you suggest I take some of the emotional energy out of it? This is a bit new for me, and I'm a little unclear about what you mean?
posted by Rosengeist at 9:39 PM on June 28, 2016

As someone who's been in your friend's position in some relationships, I think it's actually worth including some if perhaps not all of the detail in your draft message. I think it's great that the draft conveys the fact that you've come to understand the dynamic you and your friend had going on, you're self aware about your role in that, you've taken steps (being in counseling) that will help to change up the dynamic, and you are interested in supporting her now. In her position, these are all things I would want to hear.

Keep in mind that what's happened with your friend doesn't mean that she didn't feel you were close, or that she doesn't still care about you. She would not have been there for you the way she was if she didn't care about you. She can both care about you and feel close to you, and need to pull away to protect her emotional energy. While I think it's excellent that you've really come to understand what happened with this friendship, I also think that some of your writing about it is a little melodramatic. That's understandable, because this has been an emotional event for you; but you might try to keep your expression of that in check when you write to her, because sometimes those really big expressions of difficult emotion can seem like something that requires comforting or managing or help, especially when there's already a dynamic where one person talks about their problems and the other listens and consoles. So I would think about moving away from phrases like " I will do my utmost to keep my emotional world from affecting you."
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:51 PM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

You would probably benefit from reading the Emotional Labor Thread. I'd suggest that you not write any drafts now and put it out of your mind as best you can. In September, write something true to where you are then. Don't try to anticipate, because you should be doing a lot of growing between now and then (right?). Consider thanking her for everything and asking if there's anything you can do to return the favor. Demonstrate your growth through changed behavior not a long emotional email. She's telling you loud and clear that she can't carry any more of your emotions. It's going to be hard to sit with this and untangle yourself, but you can.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:23 PM on June 28, 2016 [26 favorites]

[Rosengeist, AskMe isn't really for back-and forth exchanges. Please limit your comments to necessary clarifications. Thanks!]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 10:33 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

You ask what you can do. Go to counseling for an extended period of time - if you are already going, that is great - keep it up, because it takes awhile. That is something you can do. Stoneweaver has it right: if you work on yourself, you are going to change. Anticipating how you will change and asking for people to help you craft your message explicating that change to your friend - well, I will just say that true change is slow and there are no shortcuts. Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 11:03 PM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

You asked how you might convey your message-- here is the important part...
"Hey, I miss you, and I would love to be updated on your life and family. I hope that everything is going well"

Can you recognize the difference between this short invitation that is about your friend and the detailed info that followed which somehow made the conversation all about you...
posted by calgirl at 11:12 PM on June 28, 2016 [37 favorites]

Yep, if you've really been making progress on yourself, it will September. calgirl's revision of your e-mail is spot on. It doesn't take a lot of time for her to read, it's not emotionally involved, it indicates you may be realizing how lopsided the friendship had been by showing an interest in her life (and joys and struggles).

Spend this time working on yourself. You say you've been super isolated. What are you doing to change that? Experiment with new ways of being around others, remember to listen and ask lots of questions. What techniques do you have for managing your anxiety? Keep practicing what you have and seek more.

I have lots of experience managing my own anxiety (at first managing it poorly...but getting better all the time;]), memail me, I'd be happy to talk about what has worked for me (plus check the tons and tons of advice on ask).
posted by hannahelastic at 11:42 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

September is pretty soon to ask to resume a relationship when someone wants a break. It sounds like a longer cooling off period is appropriate. Counseling takes time and three months seems short. Around the new year, I'd send her a very short note that's about her, and not you.

Hi, I hope all is going well for you.

I realize that in the last few years, I leaned too heavily on you, and that was unhealthy. I'm working with a counselor, and I appreciate your help making me see that was the best next step.

I miss you, and when you are ready, I would love to hear from you.

One note and if she doesn't respond, then you respect that boundary. When you want to rebuild a relationship, the most important thing is to respect her wishes.
posted by 26.2 at 11:53 PM on June 28, 2016 [27 favorites]

I have been the other person. Like the other posters said, I would not send your version of email, because it made it all about you. A short email saying you would be there for her is fine, and thanking her for all that she has done for you.

There are other ways you can 'pay back' that do not require lengthy conversations about how you feel and how sorry you are. A short list might include: cooking for your friend, inviting them on fun days out THAT YOU PLANNED (but not feel hurt if she turns down your invitation), doing nice things for them, making nice gifts, remembering birthdays. I am not your friend so I do not know what works for her.

She might not want your interaction anymore because it has all been one way -- you leaning on her for support. That's why she has been avoiding you. But perhaps, if you yourself was a source of strength, she might want to seek your friendship.
posted by moiraine at 2:20 AM on June 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

she was feeling like a counselor, especially since I was not making fast improvement.

You had a lot going on, you were starved for connection and understanding. She stepped into the counsellor role (probably has her own not completely healthy reasons for staying in it, not enforcing boundaries at that time, etc.). Your issues were bigger than she could deal with, and more than you could handle; you probably did ask for too much, more than one person can offer.

Her expectation was that you would take her advice and use it immediately, because she probably thought she saw everything clearly, and believed it was great advice. Maybe it was! But it wasn't enough, because advice is not usually enough, even when people aren't dealing with mental health issues; people need time to process things their way. Also, yes professional help can be useful when people are dealing with mental health issues.

I think that the advice offered by 26.2 is right (and worth heeding).

If you do get a response to such a letter, don't expect that things will pick up and be the way they were before things took the turn they did. That is in memory now. She's got an idea of you, one that's kind of sticky, and loaded with emotion. It's a snapshot of an unfortunate time, not the whole story - but that's the way people get ideas about each other.

There's no really reliable, ethical, or practical way to change someone's idea about you, though, you just can't, if they're not up for it. I don't know, exactly, what it would take to change it. Maybe she'd hope to see some changes along the lines she suggested. Maybe those changes aren't the ones you need or can do, on this timescale. Maybe she doesn't know.

At the same time, you never know how things will turn out. You might end up meeting accidentally in 10 months and feeling comfortable again, if you're both in a different frame of mind, different situation. You might meet a few other great people, and feel less lonely and needful of her friendship. (I've been surprised, year to year, at who I've ended up spending time with and feeling close to. Older friends drift in and out, new people come in - it's all unpredictable. Life stages matching up or not; serendipity.)

I think it would be self-protective to keep hopes for any particular outcome around a letter, and the friendship in general, sort of minimal, and to focus instead on addressing on the things you want and need to work on, and developing other friendships. Until you know new people really well, save the more challenging emotional discussion for therapy. (And/or lean on family a bit, if you're lucky and that's an option. Otherwise, it's good that you have therapy - also consider group therapy, if that's available.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:28 AM on June 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have been on both sides of this. It's tempting to explain what you've learned and why you're sorry and how you'll do better, but if you've been emotionally dumping on her, it'll just sound like more emotional dumping.

I've also learned that you shouldn't build any kind of relationship based on a potential future version of a person. All the "I will"s and "I'll try"s mean less than you think, because they may never come, and in the meantime you might not have changed any of your old patterns, and might not change them for a while. If you want things to be different the second time around, be prepared to act differently right away. To do this, continue counseling. Work on developing healthy interaction styles with other people (they don't have to be close friends, or in person; new online acquaintances, coworkers, family members, anyone you talk to socially can be someone you "practice" with): ask them about themselves, listen, try to keep things moving back and forth instead of focusing them on you. Reapproach your old friend when you feel like you've improved at it.

The other day I read a comic that said "if you want to say thank you, don't say sorry", and although it doesn't apply perfectly here, I think you might find it useful. The "sorry" examples are all effectively saying "I am interacting in the wrong way, please reassure me," while the "thank you" examples are saying "I recognize and appreciate the contributions you're making to our time together." If at any point you feel like you're dragging down a conversation or friendship, see if you can shift the focus from your feelings to theirs.

Don't send that letter, though it's healthy for you to have written it. Continue to get healthier and practice being the friend you want to have. When September rolls around, revisit this question and the answers to it, and see what sticks out to you then versus now. Then, if you're ready, say hi to your old friend and see what happens.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:27 AM on June 29, 2016 [12 favorites]

You ask how to discharge some of the emotional energy without dumping it on other people -

In addition to therapy, keeping a journal works. Writing stuff down gets it OUT of your head, so it's not clouding your thinking.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:29 AM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Hey, I miss you, and I would love to be updated on your life and family. I hope that everything is going well, and that things are falling into place for you. I realize that in the last few years, I may have leaned too heavily on you, and taken advantage of your sympathy in a way that was unhealthy.

You are not ready to initiate contact. Nthing read the emotional labor thread.
posted by Mchelly at 4:46 AM on June 29, 2016

Essential reading for you:

Codependent No More
Beyond Codependency

Don't worry if you think these titles do or don't apply to you specifically. They are actually books about how to be a good friend/partner without sucking too much energy from others. Extremely helpful for any of us who did not learn that well enough growing up. All my relationships have been vastly improved since i read them. Good luck.
posted by Miko at 5:33 AM on June 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

how might you suggest I take some of the emotional energy out of it?

This is what therapy is for.

Your friend has asked for time away from you, and you're spending that time planning the reunion. You're trying to craft an email in such a way that it will get you what you want, which misses the point by a country mile. Even if the email worked, you would not be able to follow through and be a friend to the other person because you haven't done the work.

Delete your draft, set aside plans for reconnecting, and focus on your therapy.

This person did not trust you enough to confide in you when she needed support. Should there come a time when you really understand why - from her perspective, not yours - and should there come a time when you truly believe you have something to offer (not take from) this person, then an email saying just that and nothing more *might* be appropriate. But *do not* draft that email now, not even in your mind. Put your efforts into doing the hard work that leads to clarity, not the easy work of pretending to have found it.
posted by headnsouth at 5:54 AM on June 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

A thought for your next draft: Not all people who are adept at the kind of support you received from her want that kind of support in return or "repayment." Urging her to reciprocate may not be what she needs.

I do genuinely, deeply value her friendship and care for her. Not just because she supported me, but because I think she's a good person and I want her life to be happy.

Please give some honest thought to the first sentence. Are there any other reasons you value this friendship? I ask because the second sentence is something that could be said about many therapists.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:09 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

2nd moiraine's suggestion of doing an activity with her.
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:21 AM on June 29, 2016

She stepped into the counsellor role (probably has her own not completely healthy reasons for staying in it, not enforcing boundaries at that time, etc.).

Yes, it was her choice to be in that role, for whatever reason. I highlight this because it really sounds like you are kicking yourself. There were two people in this relationship and you both have responsibility. Don't feel like you owe it to her to make it better or explain or demonstrate progress or anything else.

I would say, put your notes away and revisit them in 2017. At that point, write down the upsides and downsides of contacting her again. You may find you don't want to revisit a relationship where there were a lot of unhealthy patterns.
posted by BibiRose at 7:22 AM on June 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Maybe less about doing your "utmost to keep [your] emotional world from affecting [her]" and hoping to "engage with [her] in a healthy way the way [you] once did" (kind of exhausting just to read it) and more about what you value about her (other than her support).

Is there something she really enjoys that might have an event when you're sending the email? Maybe offer to treat her to that so all she has to think about is "Do I want to go to Fun Event with Rosengeist?" not whether she wants to begin some long rekindling process.

As it reads now, this note is more about you and your issues and your process, which is what overwhelmed her in the first place. I think it would show more progress to write something that shows that you really value and see her for more than her friend-therapist role.

I think this note will change after you have been in therapy for a bit. September may be too soon.
posted by *s at 7:41 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

She revealed to me that she had some changes happening with her family that she had said nothing about before.

This may not be salvageable. There are people who like being helpful and who need to be needed and who will be endlessly supportive when you are a basket case and then will do a 180 on you the minute you start getting your act together and will basically intentionally make you feel atrocious, in hopes of crippling you enough to keep the upper hand in the relationship. They will not admit their own vulnerability and neediness, then act like you have done something wrong for not somehow psychically knowing it.

I have put a lot of such relationships behind me. I try to be grateful that I got the support I needed at the time and make my peace with the fact that some relationships do not have long term potential.

If you want to drop her a note in September, that's fine. Keep it brief and write it in September, not now. If you follow the good advice you have been given above to journal and what not, the note written in September will be a completely different note in ways you cannot currently imagine.

But if she doesn't respond well to it, don't beat yourself up or tell yourself it is all your fault. It isn't all your fault. She chose to not share her problems with you. She is still choosing to not lean on you. It takes two to create a relationship. What happened is the outgrowth of the choices of both of you. It isn't all you.
posted by Michele in California at 11:30 AM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have been your friend.

I cut contact with my extremely needy friend just over a year ago. Even so, I am not at a point where I want to resume our friendship. I'm not exactly mad about it anymore, but neither am I eager to invite her back into my life. So far as I can tell, she has done nothing to address her issues, and frankly I don't have the time or energy to put up with that anymore.

My advice to you is much the same as the other advice in this thread: respect her boundaries, and spend your time working on yourself. That said,there is a definite chance that reaching out in September may not yield the results you want. I would be prepared to talk about that in counseling.
posted by Vervain at 11:38 AM on June 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've been your friend. I cut things off because it was too tiring to listen, to see her cry, to hear her have the same problems with little openness to doing things differently. I had some struggles and chose not to tell her because I felt like she would get into the idea of fixing them and supporting me through them in ways that weren't attuned to me, but more to how she thought comfort should work. I didn't feel safe to have my own process. I knew she would want to reciprocate the support I had given her and I didn't believe she could, at least not without some labor on my part to help her know how to help me.

I think "making it right" might not mean things being "right" as you would think of them. For her, "right" might mean finding new friends and knowing you are living your best life apart from her. It will be respectful of her autonomy to let it stay "wrong" (in your perception) rather than requiring things to be made right by your standard of what rightness means.

You mention you are sad. I wonder if you are also sorry. Sad is more about you, while sorry is about the relationship.

At minimum, accepting the idea of a life without her will likely relieve some of the implicit pressure she is responding to.

I would have liked it if my friend had said, "I'm grateful for the time we've had together as friends. Some friendships are lifelong, others are short and sweet, and most are in between. I would love if our friendship can continue--in whatever form it takes--but if it turns out to have been a short one, I want to say thank you for everything, and best wishes. If you do ever want to get a quick coffee or see a movie, or just want someone to go out with, you know where to reach me." I would love a fresh start with plenty of time to just be together and rebuild from scratch, as two people meeting one another for the first time--as, in a way, you guys will be if you do decide to try again. She's been hurt by you, and you'll be doing your own work. Let yourself meet herself and give each other permission to explore the new space of the relationship.

But first give her space and work on yourself. Don't give up; it will be so helpful for you in relationships in general.
posted by ramenopres at 8:07 PM on July 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

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