Friend doesn't understand boundaries; what to do?
March 6, 2020 10:39 AM   Subscribe

The long and short of it is that I want to remain friends with someone who I think has a poor understanding of boundaries, despite my best effort to communicate mine. I'm honestly confused about the relationship. I've tried to assert myself and what I want out of the relationship, but it isn't working, and I need advice.

I met this friend a little over a year ago in a casual setting. I asked her out on a date and I pursued her for a bit. Things didn't work out. She was standoffish and when things got physical she pulled away. I took that as a strong rejection and decided to move on. Then I didn't hear from her for a few months, so I figured that was that. Months later, she got back in touch and wanted to hang out, so we did, and to make a long story short, we have been friends since then.

It's definitely somewhere in the grey area between dating and friends, but much closer to the "friend" side of that spectrum. We work a lot better as friends. We don't kiss or sleep together, but occasionally she wants to cuddle. Quite honestly, I don't get much physical affection in my life, so I don't mind the cuddling, but I set some boundaries. I don't let it go beyond a simple head on shoulder kind of thing, and usually that works.

However, a couple times she has hinted that she wants a kind of sexual relationship that I don't, involving some kinks which I have no interest in. I clearly communicated that I wasn't into that, and it doesn't really come up. So we're not compatible sexually, but as friends we work, and I value that friendship, and enjoy her company. Recently she's been wanting to hang out almost every day, which to be honest is just too much for me, and seems to be pushing into girlfriend territory. As I said, nothing ever gets sexual between us, we typically just hang out and talk about stuff that happened during the day, watch TV, eat some food, standard casual hangout with friends things. She's not that consistent, though. Sometimes if she's busy, she'll go days without communicating and then two weeks later I'll hear from her again.

Now, you might say that I need to establish boundaries... I think it's important to note that this friend is not very good at reading body language, or listening and communicating, and understanding and honoring boundaries. I think she's a little bit on the spectrum, if I'm being honest. For example, sometimes I'm exhausted and just need to go to bed, and I'll politely tell her so, and walk her to the door, but she'll just stand in the hallway talking for 20-30 minutes. Other times, she decides she's tired and will abruptly leave. In other cases, I've told her I'm busy, and she's called me 3 times in a row anyway.

She is very sweet, and I enjoy her company and don't want to lose her friendship, but this is becoming really difficult. She got upset the other day that I didn't invite her to an event. I wish that she would have told me, but instead I had to find out by her ignoring me. Communication is clearly a big problem here and part of why this is stressful. I feel like I'm being pretty straightforward in saying I like hanging out with you, I enjoy you company, but I don't want anything more than that. I feel like I'm making this obvious, but it's clear she wants more from the relationship, and if I'm being honest I think I have unconsciously used this friendship as a sort of "surrogate girlfriend" relationship, where I am able to get a lot of the comfort of a dating relationship without any serious commitment or the complications of sex. I've actually had this problem before with friends. I'm not doing this intentionally, but I don't have a map for the territory I find myself in now. (Not that such maps are ever very useful in human relationships.)

What should I do here? What is the best way to communicate the quagmire I find myself in? My desire is to be friends.

Thanks in advance
posted by deathpanels to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You want out, get out. She is tying up your bits you need to find a full spectrum companion, and it looks as if she gets some kink on the side, then comes home to more normie you. If you still want the friendship, set the boundaries outside your private living space, meet in public, no physical contact. Make it stick.
posted by Oyéah at 11:02 AM on March 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you might have a couple of related problems. First, it's possible that you are not communicating your boundaries as clearly and specifically as you perhaps need to do to get through to your friend. In your example, you told her you were busy and she called anyway-- did you answer the phone any of those times? Because if so, all you actually did was demonstrate that you will accept her phone calls even when you say you're busy. If your boundary is "no phone calls when I am busy" you should say "I am busy right now" (or every weekday from 9-5, or after 9pm, or whenever you don't want to take phone calls) and then not answer her phone calls during that time. You can't just tell some people what your boundaries are and expect them to do the work to enforce those boundaries. Some people require you to take direct action to implement your own boundaries.

You may also need to decide if there are any consequences if/when she pushes boundaries, communicate those to your friend, and follow through with them. So if you need to get to bed and say so, and she keeps chatting, you may need to interrupt her if she starts talking in the hallway and say "sorry, good night!" and close the door/walk away/take direct action to stop the socializing and meet your own needs.

Finally, I would suggest that you might want to think pretty seriously about if it is healthy for you to maintain a friendship that requires a lot of active boundary enforcement from you, especially in light of the fact that she seems to have a habit of pushing boundaries around physical/sexual activity even though you have explicitly told her you are not interested in that kind of relationship. I personally have decided that I am really only willing to be close friends with people who I don't need to do a lot of boundary coaching and enforcement with, and that is extra-double-triple true for people who push sexual boundaries. I am not interested in having close relationships that require a ton of work from me to remain healthy. YMMV though!
posted by Kpele at 11:41 AM on March 6, 2020 [13 favorites]

Your friend is a bit past not understanding boundaries and into the territory of not respecting them. You've described her as a person who really wants this friendship... as long as it's completely on her terms. She wants you around when it's convenient for her, but doesn't even contact you when she's not feeling like it. She rejected you as a date, but approached you for kink and cuddles. She keeps pushing your boundaries on the cuddles, and honestly it sounds like she wants you to do the emotional labor of being in a relationship without reciprocating. While she may be on the spectrum, it's also possible that she is behaving in a predatory way - these two things are not exclusive at all. Honestly, she sounds like a terrible friend, more like someone who wants attention and thinks she can get it from you.

I would say that you should reconsider whether you want to be friends with someone who treats you the way she does. Make a list and go through it on the regular. If you decide that you want to pursue the friendship, set boundaries and enforce them - if you tell her you're busy, don't answer calls or texts. If you need her to leave, get her out the door and then close the door. If you need her to respond to messages, don't just brush it off when she doesn't contact you for weeks at a time. Once you figure out what you're okay with, don't move the goalposts.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:52 AM on March 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

I would suggest doing two things:

1) Have a very direct talk with her about how you're feeling, and what aspects of the relationship you're currently feeling uncomfortable with. Think about how you and she can concretely change these aspects of the relationship and brainstorm with her how you can approach that together, if she is receptive to doing so. She might be initially hurt, but imho having an honest conversation about the dynamic will be less hurtful than just pulling away or ghosting her without trying to communicate about it first. Be very clear and direct about how she is crossing boundaries (give clear examples) and how it is affecting you negatively. Be very blunt if you need to be. State unequivocally that you have no interest in anything sexual with her and don't want to re-open the topic. If she crosses that particular boundary again, I would step away from the friendship entirely.

2) Regardless of how #1 goes or if you have such a conversation, take a step WAY back from the intensity of this relationship. I think that your comment about using your friend as a surrogate girlfriend is insightful, and bang on. You don't want to date this person and are not compatible sexually. Yet you have an intense friendship and spend a huge amount of time with her, and she is meeting many of your intimacy needs- making it harder to find someone who you may want to date and want that level of intensity with. It seems like your current friendship intensity is confusing to both of you. It's possible that she is a terrible, selfish, manipulative person who is willfully ignoring your attempts to set boundaries. It's also possible that this situation is confusing as hell on her end, since you're simultaneously telling her that you're not interested in her as a romantic partner and treating her like she is your girlfriend. Spend way less time with her, and make more of an effort to connect with other friends and meet other people. See how your friendship evolves with the intensity dialed down, and assess from there.
posted by DTMFA at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

This sounds like so many of the relationships I had in my 20s. Friends would say, "why are you wasting your time like that? What are you getting out of this?"

It took me a bit to realize you can't really do anything about it, other than stop. This is who she is, and how she wants to relate to you. All you can do is stop spending time with her if you don't like how she treats you. She doesn't have an interest in changing.

Be prepared for if you do manage to leave, she will start reaching out and telling you how much she misses you, always wants to be close to you, etc etc.
posted by miles1972 at 1:41 PM on March 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: if I'm being honest I think I have unconsciously used this friendship as a sort of "surrogate girlfriend" relationship, where I am able to get a lot of the comfort of a dating relationship without any serious commitment or the complications of sex.

I've been this surrogate girlfriend before, it's not great. That said, I think if you're being honest and CLEAR, you should be able to work this out. If your friend isn't great at reading cues, you may need to not send cues but stuff that is more like ask-then-demand. I know it sounds rude, but just say "I have to go to bed" and then if she's still talking for 25-30 min, she's talking to air. I mean, I know it's weird, but basically you wanted her to pick up on "Leave, now" when you said you wanted to go to bed, but then you also (I am guessing) stayed and talked to her. To some people, that is a mixed message.

Now, I don't think this is your responsibility, to be honest, she should be meeting you partway here. But, if you think she has challenges in this area and it's okay with you to try to work with her on this, that is what I would do. Same with the phone, can't make her not call you, but can turn your ringer off. And when she crosses a boundary, feel free to say at the time "Hey I said no to this"and if she's still doing it, then she's flat out not being friendly.

Simlarly "Hey it hurt my feelings when you ignored me because you were upset with me without telling me. Can we work out another way to deal with disagreements?"

It's okay to want the friendship you want, even a surrogate girlfriend friendship. Just be clear and honest and also try, with yourself, to be honest about what other people want and try to make sure your deeds are matching your actions and words, it's hard but (in my mind) it gets better. I'm still friends with most of my old "surrogate boyfriends" but mainly because I found a guy who is my style, they found women who were their style and there wasn't tension there and we could just be friends. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 1:53 PM on March 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure this is about boundaries. I think this is about a complicated, undefined relationship where you both have contradictory interests (like, you each have your own contradictory interests, not that your interests contradict hers).

Though, when talking about boundaries, if someone isn't reading them, you need to be explicit about them. If you say you need to go to bed and someone is lingering at the door, then you can say, "I really need to say good night now and go to bed."

Stepping back, way back: do you want to be in an intimate relationship with this person or someone else? If with her, go ahead and initiate that conversation, and let the whole relationship go if you're not both on the same page. If you want that with someone else, then you must know that this relationship is going to interfere with your ability to pursue another intimate relationship that's more healthy.

You want to be friends, but it's not only up to you; she might want more, or not want to be friends at all. I think you might need to communicate more directly and clearly.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:02 PM on March 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Use fewer words and more behavior. I'm tired, walk away. I'm going to bed, don't answer phone.

I think there's more going on here, and you might be happier out of this quasi-relationship that insulates you from the risk in a real relationship, but I'm mostly answering the question you asked.
posted by theora55 at 2:35 PM on March 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

For example, sometimes I'm exhausted and just need to go to bed, and I'll politely tell her so, and walk her to the door, but she'll just stand in the hallway talking for 20-30 minutes.

That’s a peculiar example to use, as you are doing a really bad job of enforcing boundaries there. You could close the door at any time, but you’re waiting for her to take care of you.

Going from that I suspect you are not enforcing boundaries anywhere near as firmly as you think you are. I’m thinking that doing so might help a lot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:25 PM on March 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you might be rather sensitive to subtle social cues and are used to mostly dealing with others who are similar. Especially with someone like your friend, you may need to be more direct.

* If she calls when you're busy, don't answer the phone.
* If you do answer when you're busy, say something like "I'm too busy to talk right now, I'll call you later." But really, don't answer the phone.
* It's okay to put your phone on silent and then take a day or two to follow-up with someone when you're busy. This also reduces your availability to her.
* If she's standing in the hall talking non-stop when you need her to leave, cut her off. You can touch her shoulder or something to interrupt a flow of words and say something like "I really need to get some rest. I'll see you soon." And then don't wait for her to leave, just go back inside.
* Actually, don't invite her to your place. If things are in a gray area, one-on-one time in your home is not going to make them less gray. But someone who doesn't take the hint and leave when you need them to has given you enough reason to stop having them visit.
* Spend less 1:1 time together and instead include her in group hangs with friends.
* If you do get together 1:1, make it something that doesn't feel datelike, and don't meet in your home. Partly to avoid the couple vibe and partly so you can leave when you're tired.
* Start actively dating and be open about it.

If you feel the need to say something, perhaps "I realize I've been almost treating you as a surrogate girlfriend, and that's not cool. I think we both know we're better as friends. I'll try to do better."
posted by bunderful at 8:01 PM on March 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

She was standoffish and when things got physical

or, "things" were standoffish and when "you" got physical. careful selective vagueness with regard to who's doing what is nobody's friend.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:56 PM on March 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is kind of messy.

You can't mean this:
My desire is to be friends

If you're doing this:

I have unconsciously used this friendship as a sort of "surrogate girlfriend" relationship


Sometimes if she's busy, she'll go days without communicating and then two weeks later I'll hear from her again.

How much does this bother you?

FWIW it does sound as if she's on the spectrum but that means that your boundaries need to be much clearer. I have a feeling that hugging might not be a good thing to be doing with her so find other people to hug. Just stop being boyfriendy.

I don't think you are bad at establishing boundaries, I think you're bad at maintaining them.

For example:

sometimes I'm exhausted and just need to go to bed, and I'll politely tell her so, and walk her to the door, but she'll just stand in the hallway talking for 20-30 minutes.

To herself? To the wall? At you? Are you responding? If so it might be better to phrase it this way: "I'm exhausted and just need to go to bed but we'll both just stand in the hallway talking for 20-30 minutes". Why are you doing that?

Open the door. Keep saying "goodnight, speak later" no matter what she says.

I agree with one of the above posters - stop bringing her to your house. If you enjoy her company you can enjoy it at a cafe.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:47 AM on March 7, 2020

Response by poster: To be clear, in the “I need to go to bed” scenario, she is still IN my apartment for 20 minutes, not the hallway outside. I phrased that badly.

It feels very much like she just doesn’t want to leave and is lingering trying to prolong the night when I’m standing two feet from the door with her trying desperately to be polite while repeating “I really have to get to bed....” and looking miserable and tired.

That scene captures the subtlety of the relationship to me. I’m being really obvious and polite, maybe too polite, and she’s overstaying her welcome.
posted by deathpanels at 6:02 AM on March 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just tell this person what you want them to do. Don't say "I have to get to bed" and stand there because that's not an action item for them.

Say, "Go home." It doesn't have to be an order, you can phrase it kindly. Nod at the door, flick your fingers, "shoo! I'm going to bed. Go home!"

You have to say what you want.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:16 AM on March 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

Also: For someone who has limited physical closeness in their life, who is hypersensitive to and aware of touch, people who are huggy/cuddly can create some confusion - especially when that might be the only time they are touched all week. Sometimes they need to start telling people to back off - sometimes it takes a while for them to learn this. This may or may not apply to her.

I once had a friend who I would spend one-on-one time with, until I started to realize that he might have some feelings for me. I stopped spending that kind of time with him. When he suggested we do something I'd start talking about bringing other friends along. "Bob and Sue and Jerry have been wanting to try that restaurant too, we could all go together." We did grow apart, but we both made new friends, and he met a girlfriend not long after.

Another way to set boundaries is in the subjects you discuss - whether you bring them up or engage once they do. Work stuff, current events, trivia - friendly. Hopes, dreams, fears, sex stuff - boyfriendly. If she brings up her kinks, tell her it's none of your business. If she keeps doing it, end the conversation. Leave, hang up, whatever.

On your update re: the "I need to go to bed scenario" - I really think the answer is to not have her come over. Or anyone else who shows you that they don't recognize your cues on something that's clearly causing you some frustration. But yeah, in future - with other clueless guests - just be blunt as per seanmpuckett, or tell them up-front that they can come over but you need them to clear out by 10 or whenever. I will also offer to walk people out just to get them out of my space. Obviously I don't linger at the car/bus stop, I just say - the second we get there - "Welp, this is your car, goodnight now!" and turn and start walking back. If they keep talking, just keep walking and yell goodnight again over your shoulder. Walking someone out is boyfriendly, so save that for other clueless guests.

Most of us are learning about boundaries throughout our lives - figuring out to create them, maintain them, recognize them - all while trying to honor our sense of what is polite and appropriate. I think it's challenging for everyone. You're on the right track by asking this question and being honest. Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 6:26 AM on March 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

To be clear, in the “I need to go to bed” scenario, she is still IN my apartment for 20 minutes, not the hallway outside. I phrased that badly.

That doesn’t really matter - if the door is already open you gently direct her through it and close it, if you’re still inside you direct her to the door, open it, direct her outside and close it. What people are trying to say is that you didn’t have to stand there with her, you allowed her to talk at you for half an hr when you wanted to stop talking, instead of ending the conversation.

Clearly most people would interpret your prompt as ‘it’s time to leave’ and get going. For whatever reasons she is not most people. So you’ll have to be much more direct and, in this scenario, take active steps to move her, even if that feels rude.

Not meeting in your home is one way to avoid that in the future - you can just say good bye and leave if you’re in a public space.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:28 AM on March 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’m being really obvious and polite, maybe too polite, and she’s overstaying her welcome.

Stop communicating your state, and start communicating the specific actions you want her to take.

Repeating "I really have to get to bed..." is not being interpreted in the way you want it to be, so you need to try something different. With this specific example, you are making a statement about yourself and your state of mind, with the expectation that she will deduce your needs.

I'll even go so far as to suggest that it's actually a lot of labour to ask of someone, and for whatever reason, she's not able to do it in these situations. "I need you to leave now" is also obvious and polite.
posted by cCranium at 1:22 PM on March 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

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