Boundary setting with friends
September 15, 2016 11:56 AM   Subscribe

How do you set boundaries with friends? I have a friend who's going through a rough time, and I'd like to support her, but it's sometimes quite challenging. Snowflakes after the jump.

"Jane" is an old colleague and friend. I am very fond of her and respect personally and professionally. She is a very social person and likes to have a busy calendar. She also has pretty severe depression and anxiety and is in therapy for this. She recently moved to a new town and is feeling quite lonely and having trouble adjusting, making her depression and anxiety much worse. Though she's making new friends, my partner and I (who live nearby) are like a safe space for her, and see her about once per week outside of work. She doesn't have any family nearby, or any other close friends. She is also single and very much wants to be in a relationship and settle down to have kids, so she's doing some online dating but hasn't found a relationship yet.

I believe that good friends stick together through highs and lows, but I find myself feeling frustrated with Jane. Here's an example: she calls me on Monday and asks if she can come over for dinner on Thursday. We say yes. Wednesday, she calls again and says she'd asked her friend Sarah if she could hang out on Thursday but didn't hear back, so that was why she scheduled with us. Now Sarah is free Thursday, and Jane really wants to see her, so she asks whether Sarah also come for dinner. Sarah is not our friend, and is gluten-free, and wants to bring her boyfriend, which creates something of a challenge for last-minute menu planning. [One solution is of course to go out somewhere but in cases like this, Jane will stress that she wants to come over, as she is having some financial difficulty, although we do tend to go out for meals when we see her.] I am of course happy that Jane is making new friends, but it feels like we're a backup or safety for her. This is a pattern of behavior with Jane, and not just a one-time event.

It's hard to decrease the time we spend together because we are colleagues and see each other regularly. When I have tried saying "Go ahead and hang with Sarah on Tuesday, we can see each other next week," she is upset and hurt. While I want to support her during a really rough patch in her life, the asymmetry is starting to feel frustrating and our hangouts feel more like a responsibility than a social event. I am having my own sorts of troubles that I don't bring up with her for professional reasons, so it can feel even more draining to be her safety net so frequently. We are all in our late 30s and I don't know how to better set boundaries, as my previous attempts have not been successful. What can I say to her without hurting her feelings?
posted by pocksuppetteer to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You can't really avoid hurting someone's feelings about anything they're going to be hurt about that isn't your fault. Inviting yourself for dinner is perfectly okay among friends, but when you've done so, you can't then up the guest list to include others. Your friend either doesn't know this, or just is wishy-washy about setting her own boundaries. I'd say let her feelings be hurt. You're all adults, and having depression doesn't absolve you from also having manners.
posted by xingcat at 12:07 PM on September 15, 2016 [17 favorites]

Hmm, I'd lean on the practical constraints and be gentle, and maybe not have a huge conversation about the overall trend, necessarily, but rather enforce boundaries in individual instances. Maybe have a talk wrt the guests: "Jane, we love having you over, but last-minute guests are a little tough to handle, because of the extra food and preparation required". (If she hasn't had to be responsible for guests for a while, this may not be obvious to her.) So if she's wanting to meet on a given day and you're just not up for it, simply say, "sorry, we can't on Wednesday" or "I'm really tired from work, another time?" With enough repetition, she will (hopefully) get the message.

Once you've had a break from her, you may find yourself feeling more tolerant during the times you do see her.

(Maybe, separately, encourage her when she talks about getting involved in volunteer activities, classes, etc.)

(Re that time with Sarah, guessing she didn't want to offend you by changing plans, and that that was her inelegant way of trying to keep everyone happy.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:11 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

it feels like we're a backup or safety for her.

You might be... Is that a painful idea, or are you close enough for you to recognize that, with an appreciation of her state of mind, and not let it bother you?

OTOH, people shuffle plans like that all the time, even with very good friends, for whatever reasons - they just don't usually explain why out loud, and instead offer a white lie, because they have more skill than Jane's demonstrating. [Have you never done this?] Jane is probably being clumsy and transparent because she's feeling awkward all around... I would try to look at her behaviour as reflecting her depression and anxiety and maybe split that off from her intention.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:22 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I could have written this question about a friend that I have who seemed, on the one hand, desperate for my company and on the other hand, not really respectful of my time or energies.

Jane is having a rough time and may not be able to balance other people's feelings and needs along with her own and she's trying to make it work for her. This is fine, more or less, probably normal for where she is right now. At the same time, you feel like maybe you're extending yourself and not only isn't that being appreciated, you feel like if you don't pick up on her requests you are in some way being a bad friend. I am here to tell you that you are not being a bad friend but that being friends with someone who is depressed and anxious can be hard.

If this were me and my friend I'd basically say "Having Sarah and her boyfriend is a totally different situation that we can't manage right now. Have fun and see you next week" and then give yourself some space to be okay with that. If she weren't depressed, bringing two new people to dinner at someone else's house at a day's notice is generally not considered that cool. That is, some people might be fine with it, but it's within the realm of normal to not at all be fine with it. I would not suggest getting into deep discussions about her feelings about this, be empathetic but not apologetic. Part of digging out of depression is having people who care, certainly, but it's also having boundaries and being able to interact in normative ways around other people.

My depressed friend very badly wants to talk to me on the telephone often. These phone calls can turn into venting sessions where she talks and I sort of make "mmm ... uh huh" noises. This doesn't work for me. Email or chat work for me. I had to set a boundary with my friend that while I was available via phone for emergencies, I didn't have time for chatting but I'd be happy to interact with her over email/chat. This may not work for her. That's sometimes how these things go. You're allowed to have the things you want as well, even if you're not the one possibly with "greatest need" right now. It's good that you are a friend to Jane, but it's totally okay for you to inject what you would like into your relationship as well.
posted by jessamyn at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2016 [22 favorites]

If she weren't depressed, bringing two new people to dinner at someone else's house at a day's notice is generally not considered that cool. That is, some people might be fine with it, but it's within the realm of normal to not at all be fine with it.

It's tough for me to imagine a scenario where even the most open-minded person would be okay with this. When you invite people into your home, you do so under certain conditions, and as a guest, inviting two people that your hosts don't even know or aren't friends with is, to me, kind of insulting. I think that it also reinforces your valid concerns about being a safety net friend.
posted by Fister Roboto at 12:39 PM on September 15, 2016 [10 favorites]

I also think that part of the safety net thing is down to you not actually disclosing your own vulnerabilities. That's bound to intensify the asymmetry. How can she know you're feeling off If you're not saying as much? This is surely contributing to a hardening of the dynamic.

If you can't share the details of what's going on now for professional reasons, communicate *something* to her. You're tired, whatever. As it stands, you're helping to create the impression you're invulnerable. , and if she's not positioned to see that you're not, it means she doesn't have the opportunity to return the favours you re offering.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:52 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when I have my own social hang ups about setting boundaries based on purely my own preferences, I find I'm much more comfortable substituting "my" needs with the needs of my relationship with my spouse. It's kind of a white lie, kind of an appeal to authority psychological trick, can feel like being a shitty feminist if I'm in a certain mood, but whatever. Switching "hey, I really need some more downtime so I'm gonna take a pass" to "hey, partner and I have been talking and we realized we really need to build more time for us as a couple into our schedules, so we're going to start doing that" just feels different. If you find yourself over worried about what someone else is going to think about you drawing necessary social boundaries, and you have a live in partner, maybe this hack will work for you too.

Note: your needs are totally valid as a standalone entity, and it's worth reflecting on, respecting, and communicating your own boundaries, but we all only have so much energy and sometimes it's just easier/more socially acceptable feeling to have other people to "blame" in these kinds of conversations.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:57 PM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I have tried saying "Go ahead and hang with Sarah on Tuesday, we can see each other next week," she is upset and hurt.

Right there is where the boundary lies. Her response isn't your responsibility. It's ok that she asks you to feed her friends with changing weeknight plans and special dietary needs, and it's just as ok for you to say no. Beyond ok - your suggestion is a perfect solution.

Her emotions are her own. "I'm sorry you feel that way" is a legitimate way to stand your ground. It is hard at first, you feel like you're hurting her, but you're not. The hurt is already there, and she's in therapy to address it.

She's a brave person for moving and starting over, and you're a good friend for supporting her. But she's not on team pocksuppetteer. Team pocksuppetteer is your priority #1. She's working on building team Jane.
posted by headnsouth at 1:03 PM on September 15, 2016 [12 favorites]

Thanks for the responses thus far. I won't threadsit but want to address a couple of details that came up. I am aware that we are sometimes like a backup friend, and am fine with that, as we are more like a family to Jane. (We are also a friend that she calls when she is happy and excited and wants us to meet a new date or boyfriend, as has happened in the past). Her changing of plans is okay (because I want her to have friends and go on dates and be happy!) but also frustrating because it starts to feel like a chore.

As far as sharing personal stressors to create empathy and symmetry in the relationship, I have avoided doing that because some of the issues in our family now are about my partner's family and health, which are not public. When I've used "tired this weekend" or "need to work late," etc as excuses, she often wants to schedule an alternate time or alternate activity, so I have to persist in refusing her. She also is aware that my partner and I have been trying to spend more time together, and will invite herself along on days she knows we are planning to have together time. I again feel bad turning her down because I know that her depression is severely impacting her life right now, so I try to carve out a small time for her ("We are going to dinner tonight, but maybe you want to meet us for a drink after?") but this also tends to creep into our personal time.
posted by pocksuppetteer at 1:20 PM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you for updating. So, you can't make emotional disclosure more equitable because that would mean betraying your partner's need for boundaries. And "tired from work" just isn't very plausible, or doesn't make an impact, because she sees you at work all the time and sees how things are first-hand. And in that case, she might not see rescheduling as a big deal (because it wouldn't be, if she took you at your word).

And "partner time" might not register because she's been single for a while and forgets how important it is, and because she's got the expectation that you're available, because you've been trying to be kind....

I think being clearer about needing partner time might help. Refer to "date nights", that sort of thing. And don't try to squeeze her in on those nights, let her know they're important. ( I think just enforcing what might feel like an arbitrary boundary change, without any emotional resonance going along it, might be hurtful. But needing "date nights" might do it.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:37 PM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have similar issues, and I can sometimes have trouble navigating this exact scenario as Jane.

My thought process is usually:

I haven't talked to anyone in a personal capacity in the last 72 hours, and feeling a bit feral. I will text a few flaky friends for dinner. Their flaky history is critical, I'm not committing to rejoining society. I'm just flirting with the idea. Then I will remember I won't want to put on pants, and do I even have conversation skills anymore? So I will text my safety net for a safe space for socializing.

These people are not back-up friends. These are friends that I can show my terrible true self at it's most vulnerable. These are the most precious of friends.

Sometimes, a flake will actually come through. And they're so unreliable, the possibility of seeing them is enough to create a temporary high. Maybe I can make conversation! Maybe I could be my charming old self for One Night Only!

Because I know that I haven't actually cured this episode of anxiety and depression. This is just a small artificial window. And to take advantage of it, I need to see that flake. But I also don't want to be a flake to pocksuppeteer. Especially since it is unfair that pocksuppeteer is always there to see my downsides, and it would be nice to show them I haven't lost the old me. At least not permanently.

Because depression and anxiety has cost me friends on both side of that coin. And without discussing it explicitly, anxiety will tell me that my actions have threatened our relationship.

Let her know that you weren't really up for company Thursday night, but that it sounded like she needed an oxygen mask. You are happy that she has found out that she doesn't need it because you care about her. And you are happy to see her in the future, no matter if she is sick or healthy. And yes, healthy is better. But not intrinsically because you need her to be better, but because you care about her, and she is suffering right now. If you need to put limits on how often she comes to you for help, that isn't about her illness. It's about your well-being. And if she values your well-being, she'll respect that.
posted by politikitty at 1:53 PM on September 15, 2016 [7 favorites]

While you are here answering questions, can you provide just a bit more detail here? "When I have tried saying 'Go ahead and hang with Sarah on Tuesday, we can see each other next week,' she is upset and hurt."

I found that the critical juncture as well, and I'm having trouble imagining the conversation. Is she definitely upset and hurt, not just making sure you're not feeling offended? E.g., I might say "I *do* really want to see you guys" as part of a potential cancellation, to make sure that you didn't think I was cancelling because I didn't want to see you. I'd also listen for whether or not you said something like "yes, we were really REALLY looking forward to it as well and already made the casserole," because I'm a bit of a Guess Culture person and would potentially hear those as "yes, we will be offended if you cancel."
posted by salvia at 2:07 PM on September 15, 2016

Miss Manners recommends the broken/record approach. You're not obligated to give a reason you are unavailable. You can simply say you're unavailable and do it over and over. You can even do it kindly and/or with humor. The problem with giving reasons is that people will then debate your reasons, which should not be up for debate. So say it however you want but do say it:

You know we love you but we can't manage an extra guest. Have fun.

I'm busy then, would love to see you another time. Nah, not up for discussion, just can't do it.

Yadda yadda, rinse and repeat. A wise person once told me that making and holding boundaries is what allows relationships to flourish. If we never allow ourselves to say no, the relationship will eventually die. And if our friend is unable to accept no, not ever, then that person is probably harmful to be around. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, we are not responsible for other people's feelings. Only our own, along with our behavior.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:32 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

A great adaptable script is: "I feel ___________ because I ___________; that's why I need _____________."

Example: "I feel overwhelmed, because I want you to feel supported, but realistically I can't support everything you're going through. That's why I need it to be okay if we get together once a week instead of throughout the week, because sometimes I do have my own stuff going on that I need to keep between me and my hubby. How would that work for you?" (notice this includes a clear explanation of why the boundary is needed; it really is up to your friend to listen and recognize that you're being respectful in stating what your genuine, legitimate needs are)

I think it's incredible you've been able to add so much supportive structure to her life already. She is very fortunate to have your friendship :) That said though, keep firm with your boundaries. Show her that healthy boundaries actually do make good relationships stronger over time. To take Bella Donna's analogy about flourishing one step further: think of it like tending plants. In a garden, plants grow best when the gardener cultivates the right boundaries in order to maintain the right conditions for growth. On some level, human relationships work like that too.

It's also like re-parenting the damaged inner child in your friend. Through your actions of friendship and caring, keep showing her that even though she's struggling now, you know eventually one day she's going to outgrow this challenge and be okay. Once upon a time she was a far more happy and functional-feeling person -- don't let her forget that. She got there before, and if she keeps working on herself like she is, she'll get there again. After all (back in the garden), we would never be critical of a seedling for struggling before it thrives; instead we might try adding a stronger boundary somewhere to better support its growth. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 8:14 PM on September 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

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