Friendship valley or more than that?
January 30, 2023 3:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do about a nearly 20-year friendship that has turned difficult for me.

I've been friends with S for nearly 20 years; we're in our mid-thirties and met in college. We're part of a group of four friends who (before Covid) met up every year for vacation, and have a regular text chain. All of us have some form of depression and anxiety and we talk about it openly, but I've been particularly open about my mental health ups and downs over the years. I'm in therapy and have been for years.

About three years ago, we got into our first-ever real argument. I did something stupid without thinking. I was flabbergasted when she was upset about it, but eventually I realized that I was in the wrong. Her immediate reaction was to get extremely angry with me, including sending a long email in which she pushed hard on one of my mental health issues, basically saying that I was "messed up" and listing reasons why. I was extremely hurt by this and took some time and space away from our friendship, but I chalked it up to saying something mean in the heat of the moment, and not long after, we apologized to each other and moved on.

Last weekend, the four of us got together for the first time since 2019. For the most part it was awesome, but S did two things that really bothered me (especially in combination with this previous incident) that I'm having a hard time letting go.

S is going through a divorce and has a very young child. My parents divorced when I was not much older than her kid, and their divorce was years-long, very contentious, and extremely traumatic for me. S now absolutely loathes her soon-to-be-ex and her only wish right now is to get back at him. When she started talking about this and wanting to make sure he doesn't get custody of their kid in our shared text message recently, I politely told her I was sorry and I wanted to support her as much as possible in this difficult time, but I really can't be part of conversations like this about the divorce because it was just too upsetting for me. She said okay and began taking those conversations to a thread with just our two other friends.

But when we all got together last weekend, the very first thing that she did when we sat down at our very fancy dinner was launch into a diatribe about nailing her ex's ass to the wall, recording him so she can make sure everyone knows how crazy he is so he can't get custody, etc. I got visibly upset and excused myself to the restroom, and one of our friends followed me and comforted me. When we got back to the table, the topic had changed and S didn't say anything. Later on in the night, after a few drinks, I apologized to everyone for getting up and leaving so abruptly instead of just asking for to change the conversation. S didn't say anything or apologize, which really bothered me.

Then at the same dinner, not long after, we were all talking about what jobs we would have if we could easily change careers. I said I would want to work in a therapy-adjacent field, and with an eyeroll, she replied "Well you're gonna need a lot more therapy to deal with your own issues before you can do that." We were all laughing and having a good time, so I didn't say anything – in fact, I was kind of hoping I had misheard or misremembered it, but one of our other friends confirmed that she heard it, too.

So this is twice now that she's made light of my mental health issues, and on top of that, clearly violated a really critical boundary for me. It feels like both instances of the mental health stuff were at times where she was hurt and upset, and she was kind of trying to really hit me where it hurts. This would not feel good to anyone, but as the child of a BPD mother who did this stuff all the time, it feels especially awful to me.

On one hand, in the immortal words of Paulie Walnuts, every friendship has its peaks and valleys. Maybe this is just a valley and something that I can talk to her about and we can come to some kind of understanding. On the other, it's increasingly feeling like this person isn't able to respect my boundaries and is perfectly okay with saying really hurtful things to me when they're upset with me. And I don't want to be in a position yet another time where I am the person who has to go to her to say that she hurt my feelings.

So I ask you MeFi: Is this a friendship that can or should be salvaged, or (as I'm starting to feel) is it something that I need to walk away from for my own mental health?
posted by anotheraccount to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When you asked her not to discuss her divorce over text (a boundary she respected) did you make it clear that you meant she should never talk about her divorce to you, ever? That feels quite a bit different and is a big request to make of someone. It is well within your rights to make it! But it’s still a big ask and I can see how she might not have extended the text request to real life.

As far as the therapy comment, I have friends who could and would say that kind of thing to me and I would say, ‘lol, you’re right’ and we would laugh about it and move on. Was she being mean? Probably. But that kind of comment isn’t always mean and it really depends on the relationship.

So, do you like S? It doesn’t seem like you do, anymore. That’s enough to stop being friends with her. Most friendships are ones of circumstance and many of those end. You don’t need to have been wronged to end this friendship.
posted by scantee at 3:54 PM on January 30 [12 favorites]

This is a hard one. From your friend's perspective she is going through something extremely difficult that she needs her friends to support her in. But one of her friends (you) is requesting that she censor both her feelings (which are real) and in fact avoid talking at all about the whole entire subject she has feelings about (her own divorce). Moreover, that she do that in group situations to accommodate your past and present pain. That would likely be as hurtful to her as these painful memories you have are to you now.

How would you handle this as a therapist? Would you instruct clients not to mention certain subjects that caused you pain due to your own relationships, history, and mental health status? What is the practical way you would manage that? Although your friend didn't handle it with care, and raised it while still stinging from your request/insistence that she censor herself around you, she is raising an important issue to consider.

It sounds like neither of you can be good friends to each other right now and can't accommodate each other's pain or needs. It might be worth waiting out, to see if this is simply a valley, as long as you both recognize that you're both right here in needing something from your friend(s) that neither of you can provide. It's not one person's hurtful actions alone that are making things challenging right now for the friendship between you, or the larger group dynamic.

I'm sorry.
posted by desert exile at 4:13 PM on January 30 [26 favorites]

Response by poster: Not going to threadsit but just to clarify: I never asked her to never talk about her divorce. The conversation in the text thread regarded her doing a specific thing to her husband that my dad did to my mom during their divorce (hard to say what without revealing too much info). I told her that discussion of that particular thing was really tough for me and that's what I wanted to avoid. We talked a lot about her divorce (just not that one bit) throughout the weekend and I was fine with that.
posted by anotheraccount at 4:17 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

She sounds like a miserable person to be around, tbh. This is just my opinion, but anyone who structures any portion of their life around “getting back” at someone is just wasting the one beautiful wild glorious life we have. In my experience, once someone has decided that’s the path they’re on, I no longer am well aligned with them and it’s best if I move on.
posted by Bottlecap at 4:32 PM on January 30 [15 favorites]

This would not feel good to anyone, but as the child of a BPD mother who did this stuff all the time, it feels especially awful to me.

I think you should feel good about recognizing the similarities early and being willing to step away if you decide that's what's best for you!

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. If you enjoy S's company but feel they overstep when you've made yourself vulnerable, then swap out anecdotes for intimate details when you meet. Friendships change all the time even without a precipitating event.

But poking at a supposed friend's MH issues not once but twice doesn't sound like it's a passionate one-off overreaction, especially since they didn't apologize when things cooled off later. To me, it sounds unkind.
posted by headnsouth at 4:34 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When S gets hurt, her response is to hurt back, and they can be low blows. That's happened twice with you -- the flabbergasting incident (I do wish you had shared details, because you detail some pretty negative stuff about her but remain vague about what you did) and when you walked away from the table -- and both times, she took a shot at your mental health issues. She's also doing this with her ex, when she's talking about getting back at him.

I understand that you didn't mean to hurt her either time, but we know that intent is not as important as impact when we have hurt people we love, and she was hurt. I suspect now, in what's a time for her with lots of heightened emotions, she's perhaps feeling your unwillingness to listen as a judgment of her. And the way you tell the story, I can see why, as she looks pretty bad!

So, I think the thing to do first is be honest with yourself about how you are feeling about S right now. I understand you have a group dynamic in your friendship, but do you want to be friends with her right now? Do you want to be close? Or is your primary goal to maintain enough closeness to not lose the foursome? Figure out what you want, short and long term.

Next, I will also say it can be really hard to be around folks talking so negatively and with such bitterness during a divorce. She is maybe experience a lot of hurt and perhaps betrayal, and that's transformed into anger. I have been around a few people who never really seem to get past this anger, and it's incredibly ugly. But if you are trying to have some compassion for her right now, I'd focus on the underlying emotions of betrayal and hurt she's likely experiencing. However, it's also okay to not want to be around her as much!

If you want to mend fences, it might take you being vulnerable with her, and letting her know she hurt your feelings with her comment. I would recommend this as an in-person or phone conversation, not email or text, as things can go incredibly awry in writing.

Ultimately, though, this is a difficult time for S, and it's likely that she might again hurt you if she feels hurt by you. It may be that taking a few steps back is a good approach for now, and I don't think that means you've ended your friendship. However, she might feel like you backed away during a time of real need, so do consider that as well.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:16 PM on January 30 [15 favorites]

Your friend is not reacting in the ideal way to her divorce, that’s for sure. But I would consider that her anger and lashing out is a sign that she needs a lot of support right now. From her perspective, she may feel that in her time of need, you reacting so strongly to her talk about her ex is making this about you, not her. You’re definitely entitled to draw whatever boundaries you choose, but I think that’s a lot of what’s going on here and that’s why she’s making snippy comments.
posted by peacheater at 5:23 PM on January 30 [18 favorites]

Your friend wanted validation when she was telling her story and your reaction--which was based on incidents from your childhood--meant that she wasn't able to get that full validation. The situation comes across as one in which you disapprove of her actions, but you aren't going to say so to her face. Instead, your distress bubbles up and then it seems like you're trying to steal attention away from your friend. Your friend gets snippy about that and your feelings are hurt, worsening the relationship.

I'd trust your gut on this one and walk away.
posted by kingdead at 7:31 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

Personally, I would have stepped away from the friendship as soon as the email diatribe happened. I get that you hurt this person in some way, but even when I'm profoundly hurt, I do not handle it like this, and I don't derive joy from being around those who do. Anecdotally, I have only encountered this sort of abrupt reaction with people who have DSM-levels of unaddressed personality issues. It's possible that you did not trigger her for many years, but now that she's come to perceive you as a hurtful or unsafe person, she's probably going to react to you without an adequate filter, and I wouldn't stick around for that.

No need to write her off completely, or say that you're stepping away. In fact, I would specifically make room for a compassionate mantra/prayer for her now and again. But I don't think you want to be friends with her right now, and that's okay. It seems like she's triggering your own past wounds, including some especially deep ones that formed in childhood, and continued interaction doesn't sound positive for either of you.

As you say, it may indeed be a valley or passing bad season in the friendship, but IME those generally get resolved by a quiet stepping back. They don't get resolved by forcing yourself to meet up when there's bad blood actively circulating. Maybe exchange texts if they're about neutral or positive things (look at this cute animal! glad you passed your certification!), but otherwise...let this one breathe a while longer, and see how you feel a couple years down the road.
posted by desert outpost at 9:48 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is really fertile territory for discussion with your therapist. A couple things that jump out at me that you may want to consider (emphasis mine):

clearly violated a really critical boundary for me

The clarity is yours, not your friend's. Find a way to speak to them about your clarity on this if you wish to find a middle ground. If you don't wish to find that middle ground, or at least not right now, it's still valuable to recognize that your internal monologue is not apparent to others, no matter how close your friendship. The less you assume about peoples' motives, the better. THe way to avoid making assumptions is to seek some form of discussion.

S is going through a divorce and has a very young child. My parents divorced when I was not much older than her kid, and their divorce was years-long, very contentious, and extremely traumatic for me.

There's a lot of mixing of situations here, and it seems like you're recognizing how much your personal memories and associations are surging into your experience of friend's very current, very unresolved, very overwhelming situation. With respect, your friend's divorce isn't about you. You don't need to insert yourself into it, not just now. Maybe this is a conversation you can have with them once they have a bit more headway under their belt. Until then, it doesn't look good to openly prioritize your feelings over theirs. How can you approach this with care? At the most extreme, you can cease being around them while the divorce is as radioactively hot as it is now. You can come back in when it has started to cool. Stripping away the safety that provides to you, can you reflect on how that would make your friend feel, if you avoided them during this difficult time because of how it reminds you of your childhood? If you avoided them until a safer, more stable time comes, and then re-entered their lives when the coast was (relatively) clear? Or is there a way for you to acknowledge your difficulty to yourself but, for the moment, offer your friend support when it may be most needed. You can find ways to provide support while giving yourself cover from feeling threatened.

I'll say it again, this is prime therapy discussion material. This gets into weeds that aren't easy to get into in an online Q&A. Questions like: Have the two of you been support figures in previous times of duress? Have you received help from this friend that you would consider well-timed, essential, helpful, generous, worthy of gratitude? What is the role of enduring friendship in your value system? Is this friend and friend group a part of your life that you want to evolve so that you carry on into the future together?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:11 AM on January 31 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I'm curious what you value about this friendship besides its longevity. She's mean to you about really personal, vulnerable things she knows due to your closeness.

I also encourage you to think about the moment when you apologized for getting up abruptly. That might be something to reflect on or bring to therapy, because you apologized seemingly in order to elicit an apology from her. It wasn't wrong to get up and leave the room when she brought up a topic you'd asked her not to. It was an appropriate response to the situation. When people cross a boundary like that, often the best way to hold the boundary for ourselves is to leave the conversation. You didn't owe anyone an apology, even if your leaving disrupted the social comfort of the group, because it was S's boundary-crossing that necessitated your leaving in order to hold your boundary. So--and this is a guess so I might be wrong--it seems like you followed a pattern that (maybe) you learned from keeping the peace with your mom? You apologize for enforcing a boundary, and the other person has a face-saving opportunity to apologize for crossing it in the first place. S absolutely had reason to apologize and take accountability for crossing your boundary, but you didn't feel safe/comfortable/entitled to just ask for that accountability from her, so you took this kind of roundabout approach of apologizing for your (totally appropriate) action and expecting her to respond with her own apology. I don't mean to suggest you should feel bad or guilty about this, just that healthy friendships don't require you to apologize for holding your boundaries in order for the other person to occasionally apologize for their bad behavior.
posted by theotherdurassister at 12:48 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Friendships aren't just things that happen that you have to deal with. They're things that you consciously create and maintain because you want to.

I can't understand why you want to be friends with a person like this, and you don't give any particularly good reasons other that you happened to go to the same college at the same time.
posted by tillsbury at 3:37 PM on January 31

This is a tough one, but my two cents is to honestly say that S seems like an angry person. She showed this trait when writing that long email to you, and using your own mental health issues against you, and now she's very angry and wanting revenge against her ex. I mean, understandable to some degree, but she honestly seems exhausting. Her energy seems to be toxic towards you, as well.

I'd personally step back and wait a bit, then re-evaluate when things has cooled down, and see from there. I agree with others that some friendships just aren't made to last, and were born through circumstances that no longer serve us well.

My best to you. Sorry you have to go through this. Friendships can be incredibly difficult, especially as we get older and age out of the original circumstances of how our friendships were formed.
posted by dubious_dude at 4:23 PM on January 31

I’ve cooled off on friendships with some people that were jerks during their divorce because to me when a person is saying terrible things about their ex constantly and in front of the children and generally not thinking about what’s best for everyone to move forward they are showing their true colors.
posted by MadMadam at 6:54 PM on January 31

People are being pretty harsh about your friend.

At the dinner, she shared her pain with the group, and you made it about you, by getting up and leaving. You were doing that to protect yourself, but it was a heck of a way to respond to a friend's sharing. And you expected -her- to apologize? For telling her old friends about this godawful, consuming pain that she's in, that has been occupying every fragment of her mind?

Her mean comment was mean, but not wrong, really. If you can't handle hearing a friend unload her pain because of your feelings about your mom, you're going to need to do some of your own work before you can counsel others.

In any case, yeah, you should probably step away if hearing about her divorce is not something you can handle. Divorce eats people up inside; it is a consuming burden. She's going to talk about it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:56 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughts! Between the comments here and the people I talked to about this IRL, there was a pretty even 50/50 split of "this isn't that big a deal, especially with what S is going through right now" and "S was really nasty and you shouldn't be friends with them anymore."

Ultimately, even though I still didn't feel 100% positive about the whole thing, I decided to give S the benefit of the doubt given what she's going through. I told her that I was struggling with some things that happened on our trip and asked if we could do a Zoom, which we did last night. On the first issue (bringing up this specific divorce-related thing around me), she said that she let her desire to update our other friends about all of that stuff override my request to not talk about it in front of me. She said she apologized at the table that night (which I don't recall) and she apologized again.

On the second issue ("you're gonna need a lot more therapy"), she didn't remember saying that at all, but said that if she did, it was intended as a comment on how emotionally difficult my intended career choice is, as well as how all four of us need more therapy and are struggling with our mental health. I'm not gonna lie, I still feel uneasy about this as regardless of all of that it feels bad to me, but again, trying to give the benefit of the doubt here.

Obviously one of my many lingering issues from growing up with a BPD mom is that I let people walk all over me just to keep the peace whenever possible, so I'm still genuinely conflicted as to if I've done that here or if this is really not a big deal. Something to work out in therapy, I suppose.
posted by anotheraccount at 10:01 AM on February 2

Obviously one of my many lingering issues from growing up with a BPD mom is that I let people walk all over me just to keep the peace whenever possible, so I'm still genuinely conflicted as to if I've done that here or if this is really not a big deal.

Something I've been trying to embrace the past few years is AND rather than or. So let me modify your statement above to be...

One of my many lingering issues from growing up with a BPD mom is that I let people walk all over me just to keep the peace whenever possible, so I may have done that here, and AND also maybe this isn't that big of a deal.

Sitting in discomfort is tough, but I don't think you have to choose a specific perspective on this, certainly not immediately. Relationships are complex. It's possible that you are super sensitive about this, and also that your friend could be a lot more gentle. I am glad you talked to her, because I do think it's good to be open and thoughtful with our friends. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:51 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]

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