Best friends aren't always forever
August 12, 2006 8:04 AM   Subscribe

How do you break off ties with a long-time friend who is depressed, and who seems to feel you're the only person to lift her depression?

I've been friends with this girl since we were in elementary school together. We had an odd friendship--she could be simultaneously the sweetest friend in the world (always remembering my birthday, inviting me out with her and her friends) and the flakiest (not returning phone calls, ignoring me at parties). But her friendship was something of a rock in my childhood.

I recently went through a bad time, which I'm now just recovering from. She hadn't paid much attention to me or contacted me then, and when she did, it was on her own terms (she'd extend invitations, but always made an excuse for declining mine). Now that I'm getting back into life again, she suddenly starts noticing me again. The only problem is, she seems kind of crazy. She wouldn't give me the address of this party (not hers) she invited me to, but insisted on me following her car. She broke into an interesting conversation I was having with someone at the party, answered (for me) questions that others were asking me, and ran through a catalogue of her likes and dislikes in my conversation with her (which suspiciously mirrors the likes/dislikes I had when I was younger). She's pretentious with her friends. I started avoiding her after that party, but she continues with the chats, emails, and invitations, and basically broke down several months ago and told me how depressed she was and how she wants more frequent contact with me. I told her I was busy with my own issues and that she should seriously get some professional help (I said I'd go with her if she wanted), and since then she's been acting like I'm the one with serious problems; she keeps saying she's fine, urging me to confide in her and insisting on meeting up with me. She also keeps seeing me as the girl I was our schooldays, and she seems stung when I correct her.

I actually would like to break things off with her completely for entirely different reasons (nothing in common, different values), but she seems very emotionally fragile right now. Any sign of me cooling off towards her and she gets very anxious. I'd like to help her through this (If only out of regard for what we had in the past) but I also want to make it clear that I'm not trying to renew our friendship. Is that possible without expending a lot of time in her company? She's very sensitive, and I think she's very scared of the future and wants things to stay the same (which is the opposite of my newfound attitude). I've been doing the occasional chat with her and putting off any meet-ups with her, but I feel like I'm just sidestepping the problem here.

How should I handle this? Should I write her a letter/call her and explain everything that I've written here? Pretend to be her friend until she's better, and then slowly taper it off? Or something else?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is classic manipulation. Classic. Realize she is manipulating you. If you break things off don't mention the depression, then she'll think she can contact you when she believes the depression is over. Just stop returning phone calls and such. As in don't respond to anything. She'll get the message.
posted by geoff. at 8:24 AM on August 12, 2006

If she were to have a borderline personality disorder (possible from what you write) she may totally freak out if you talk to her about backing off.

Best thing to do simply have other things to do when she invites you. Be cordial if you speak to her, but don't initiate contact unless you have to. She may decide to cut YOU off at that point, which solves the problem nicely.
posted by konolia at 8:45 AM on August 12, 2006

Pretending to be her friend is not going to help her at all. Ditch her now, and maybe she will stop trying to ignore her personality flaws.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:52 AM on August 12, 2006

I am always reluctant to see manipulation when there is any other alternative; most people aren't evil. Mostly they are just selfish and dumb.

If you have been her friend so long, you must know some of her other friends and her family. Tell them what she is doing, tell them you are worried about her, especially now that -- you have a huge project at work/you are training for a marathon/ whatever (make your excuse something that is true, but you can exaggerate its impact) -- and will not have much time to spend with her.

They'll get it.

With her --
Oh, I'm so sorry, I keep forgetting my phone in the car,
Oh, I'm so sorry, I haven't really been checking my email
Oh, I'm so sorry, I've been really busy at work...

Eventually she'll get it.

I don't favor the direct approach in a situation like this. You don't want to humiliate her or hurt her, you just want to make her not your problem.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:52 AM on August 12, 2006

My sense is similar to what konolia feels, that it may not be possible to have a discussion rationally with your friend about what the two of you would like to be doing with your relationship, as much as it would be nice to feel that way. As someone who is close to someone with BPD, your description sounds to me like that might be an option, specifically the anxiety provoked by you saying you're going to cool things off, the "it's not me it's you" approach to her problems, and the aggressive social mannerisms. Naturally IANAD, that's just a vibe I get. In that case some strategies can be found in books like Stop Walking on Eggshells.

I found that turning my interactions into heavily structured time -- no to phone calls, no to "dropping by", no to open ended "let's hang out" time, yes to IM, yes to email, no to "did you get my last three emails? why haven't I heard from you???" -- I was able to keep myself sane and keep myself in this person's life in a way that I was pleased with and since they're a family member, something that I was trying to do. I'm not sure how you're going to be able to help her through what she's grappling with without seeming to be friends with her. I think that's liable to send mixed messages and be really problematic and you may need to walk away in no uncertain terms, at least for now. Use a lot of "I" language

- "I don't feel comfortable interacting with you"
- "I still need to get my shit straight and I can't do that with you in my life"
- "I don't share enough interests with you to spend as much time as this relationship takes to maintain"

At least that way if she argues with you, you can just tell her that's the way you feel and there's no avenue for further discussion and manipulation and discussion of YOUR faults. I think you have a few decisions to make, but keep in mind that it's okay to just go. She doesn't sound like a good or helpful friend.
posted by jessamyn at 9:25 AM on August 12, 2006

Sometimes female friendships can get like this, which is messy, and in an odd way you are like a boy trying to get out of a bad relationship with a girl.

There is a collection of essays called The Friend Who Got Away that deals with this exact topic

I find it completely reasonable for you to not be friends with her anymore, as you can always do with any friends.

However, you may need to formally "end" the friendship with a letter or email. I suggest letter, because she will cry and get angry and it will be difficult to extricate yourself from wherever it is that you have met.

And make it about you and your needs and not something specific about herself that she could change.
posted by Pocahontas at 9:25 AM on August 12, 2006

Even better. From Carolyn Hax (bugmenot):

South Carolina: How does one continue to be friends with someone who takes everything as a personal slight? Example: if she's not in a random picture taken on night when we all went out, its because we were purposely excluding her. If we don't immediately respond to her emails, its because we're mad at her. If we even attempt to make conversation with her boyfriend, we're hitting on him. Its gotten to the point where I do things just so I don't make her mad and go out of my way to be nice just so I don't get a nasty email the next day. I don't have the energy for it anymore. When is it ok to say something? And what can I say?

Carolyn Hax: One thing you can try before you say something is just acting naturally and letting her get angry, if that's what she's going to do. We throw around the word "controlling" all the time in this forum, and you've done the great service of spelling out exactly what that means: Your friend, through her insecure, defensive and punishing behavior, has grabbed the strings and made you her own little friend-puppet.

So, get the strings back and act like yourself again. If she cries something absurd like exclusion from a picture, your response is, "Oh brother." Next topic. If it's something more reasonable but still an untrue accusation, point out that she's incorrect and explain what happened--once--and if she persists, don't bite; just say sorry, there's no there there, and say there's nothing more to discuss. And if she gets angry at your email response time, ignore it and keep responding at your own speed.

See? Because what's she going to do, drop you, the friend in whose pictures she MUST appear, and whose emails she MUST receivge? No. She's going to adjust to your speed, and she's not going to drop you (or she will and you'll have a cake and balloons).

posted by Methylviolet at 9:35 AM on August 12, 2006

She's an emotional vampire. What everybody else said.
posted by signal at 9:39 AM on August 12, 2006

I had a friend like this. I couldn't get her to leave me alone... Even after I threatened to call the police if she didn't stop calling me, she still wanted to be my friend. She recently tried to re-add me to her Yahoo Messenger, which I denied, and I ignore the forwards I get from her. I hate to ignore people, because I hate being ignored, but there's nothing else I can do... I repeatedly told her I don't want to talk to her anymore and she didn't get it.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:44 AM on August 12, 2006

Sounds exactly like the only person I've ever referred to as an*ex*-friend. Said ex-friend is so BPD that she can't even see she needs help.
posted by notsnot at 10:47 AM on August 12, 2006

Twenty years from now, how would you like to reflect on the situation you relate above? Think of that question in the context of how this friend of yours might travel through the same twenty year period.

She may not be your friend anymore- friendship is primarily about pleasure of mutual association. You have every right to not wish to be friendly with this person anymore - for instance, not to want to invite her out to stuff or ask her opinion of your own life decisions - but your long relationship with her makes me consider honour and loyalty.

You can feel loyalty and the wish to act honourably towards her while not feeling that she is a friend. Honour and loyalty inspire the feeling that you hope she becomes healed and whole, and this can often be confusing when taken together with your dislike of her current behaviour.

In this particular situation, I think the best approach is to separate your sense of social friendship from your sense of honour and loyalty. And the best way to do that is to be honest with her. Even though both of you have changed, you still have a lot of common understanding with which to communicate.

A structured and boundaried approach to contact is probably good, but any dishonesty to your friend poses problems. She certainly notices each increment of distance you put between the two of you. People on a mental-health downwards spiral can be sensitive to emotional reactions and often can detect dishonesty but don't know how to appropriately ask the other person about it. This sensitivity causes anxiety to them but they can't fight it because these supposedly 'gentle lies' are an established social convention and there's no polite, 'sane' way to ask someone, 'Are you lying to me?'

If I were in your shoes, I would review this anonymous question and use it as an outline for a letter terminating the friendship - enumerating all of the reasons, admirable and shameful both, on each side. Give the embarrassing details without rancorous words, and with understanding of her point of view. The letter may use lots of 'I' statements but will also use lots of 'you's and 'we's - truthfully, not all the reasons this friendship is over are her fault. Structure the letter so that she knows you want to help her and clearly describe the ways you would like to help (including accompaniment to a therapist), and emphasise her value as a person - not generally, but specifically.

This is a very difficult proposition and only you know if it's called for in this case.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:18 PM on August 12, 2006

She sounds pretty neurotic. Don't confront - that just fuels Narcissist or Borderline personalities. Just quietly withdraw and be neutral.
posted by theora55 at 6:56 PM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

i think telling her the truth would be the most productive thing for both of you. it may take more effort, but its certainly better than being deceptive. she might be impressed by your honesty. too many people in this world take the cowardly way out by making up lies and avoiding communication. this is a very self protective mode of action. it seems justified that she should be anxious if you are cooling off. she probably senses that you want to end the friendship. so JUST DO IT. the quicker it is taken care of the better you both will feel.
posted by pleasantries at 5:47 PM on October 16, 2006

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