Can we not be friends?
February 2, 2008 3:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I "break up" with a platonic friend?

I have been friends with a woman, Amy, for several years. We are both single, straight women and in our early 40's.

Our casual friendship intensified last year as we were both going through bad times. I was getting out of an abusive marriage and my ex refused to leave me alone, which lead to terrible confrontations and and jail time for him.

At the same time, Amy had met a man and dated him briefly, but he was not interested. She was heartbroken and continued to try to get him back into her life.

So she and I spent lots of time together and stayed in close contact. She was extremely supportive and really took on my cause. I tried to help her as well, by encouraging her to leave the guy alone and move on.

I have been in therapy and also started a very healthy and happy relationship. She continued her cycle of meeting guys, falling hard, and scaring them off with her intensity. Her last "relationship" was the worst. It was with a married man who promised the world, then blew her off. After their breakup she continued sending him long letters, as well as calling, emailing, sending text messages, IM-ing to the point where he had to confront her and tell her to leave him alone. Recently she joined a club so that she could attend the meetings and see him (so he started attending different meetings, but she has tracked him down again).

Their breakup happened over 4 months ago. She still contacts him every day. She also sends me at least one long email a day about the guy and I tell her repeatedly that she has to leave him alone. She admits her behavior is terrible, but she doesn't stop.

I started to withdraw from the friendship several months ago, when I realized that she was attracted to drama. I was also extremely uncomfortable with her stalking guys, especially considering my own experience. And I was exhausted by her almost daily teary calls about the married man. When I didn't respond immediately, I would get mean messages about how I was not there for her, even though she was there for me.

I'm definitely in the "nesting" stage with my new boyfriend and busy with my work, so I've been using that as an excuse for not seeing Amy. But she does not give up. She has joined my gym, she tried to join one of my activity groups, tries to befriend my friends, etc....

Unfortunately, Amy has no other friends. None of my friends like her. She gets mad at me when I do something without her, but she makes my friends really uncomfortable.

Part of me wonders if I am selfish and if now that I'm past my issues, she's no longer useful and I'm dropping her. And I
while she drives me crazy, I do want be nice, because she is (deep down) good at heart, and seriously hurting.

Already today she has called me three times, emailed once, and sent a text message with updates of her day. Tonight I am supposed to go to a show with a group of people, and they don't want her along with us. I don't know how I'm going to explain it to her. Even as I type this question she is IM-ing me to ask what I'm doing tonight. do you end a platonic relationship with someone who has a proclivity for stalking and serious boundary issues? Is it possible to "end" things smoothly and without animosity? Or, best of all, how can I taper down the friendship so that we are still amicable, but without her constant contact?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think that the reason that you're backing away from her is not that she has "served her purpose" but that she is stalking you. I'm not sure how you handle it; you ought to be able to calmly explain that though you value her friendship, you need to scale back the time you two are spending with one another (in person and via e-mail, IM, etc.) because it's overwhelming for you and other parts of your life need more attention. A regular close friend would be able to hear and accept that without freaking out.

However, someone who has decided irrationally, as Amy apparently has, that she is your primary (platonic) partner in life and everything must involve her and everything not her must come second is unlikely to listen to reason and make a giant self-involved tragic drama out of it, with lots of unpleasant fallout for you.

I'd say start with the calm, direct friendly approach, and be prepared for that not to work. Then the next step would be not returning a certain amount of calls and e-mails, and if things go downhill from there, then you end up at the "cut off all contact" stage.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:28 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not easily. For a start, tell her that you are not free tonight, and that you have other plans. Adults don't have friendships that are so close that one feels bad not seeing the other.

Have you tried setting boundaries, like telling Amy that one phone call or email a day is enough, and limit seeing each other to once every 7-10 days.? She's going to burn anyone outso introducing her to the idea of limits is actually a kindness.

My guess is that she will try to manipulate you into seeing her more, and she may break up with you herself. By being firm with what you want and need (a little space) you may indeed be ending the friendship, but not in a horrible way.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:32 PM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Wow. Be very careful with how you handle this. Amy sounds very difficult to deal with. I don't think this is your fault -- she may have been there for you before, but her behavior now is very unhealthy. You aren't abandoning her, you're distancing yourself from someone who is toxic.
posted by Locative at 3:35 PM on February 2, 2008

Compassionately tell her that you want to spend time on your own relationship and need your space. I think you also have boundary issues, as I would have had that talk with her after she joined the same gym. She is obsessive and stalker-prone and unfortunately seems to have nothing else going on in her life. Stop responding to more than one contact a day and then from there go to a few a week. Answer the first email but not the rest. Limit the drama. She will drag you down with the sinking ship and you won't get much in return.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:37 PM on February 2, 2008

Typically this would be the point at which you shake her by the shoulders and give her a slap across the face, telling her, "GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF, WOMAN!"

This isn't the most PC way of dealing with it, but this girl needs a wake-up call and you sound like the only person in her life who would be able to get through to her like this.

I say these things as someone who has recently lost a 20yr friend due to my changing life. They were angry, thought I was making bad decisions, and really they were in the position where they felt like they had to intervene. That this resulted in them inviting me out to a beer before spending two hours calling me an asshole and talking about wanting to punch me in the face did not help them make their point. Logically, we no longer speak. However, if they would have expressed concern for anything besides how my life or decisions or schedule was affecting *them*, I might have listened and we might still be friends today.

Needing a friend doesn't have to entail what this person is doing to you, but they might not know that. Obviously this person needs someone they can commiserate with on a deep level, but it's not your responsibility to be that emotional sponge.
posted by rhizome at 3:51 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sometimes breaking up is the best thing you can do for a person. Constantly "being there" for someone who is self-destructive allows them to keep rationalizing their behavior. She needs a wake-up call, and you need to be a friend to yourself first.
posted by desjardins at 4:00 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

From your description it looks like she's doing to you exactly what she does to the men in her life. I think setting boundaries as mention above is completely appropriate and if she can't handle them tell her you can't continue being friends. Ultimately, you'll end up going through a few months of her stalking you until she latches on to someone new and the cycle starts anew.
posted by Octoparrot at 4:17 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

This happened to a really good friend of mine with a friend from high school. All her friends hated the tagalong just the same and she was always just "coincidentally" turning up where she was, even though they lived in different parts of town.

The only thing that worked was just constant avoidance. For one she stopped giving in and occasionally inviting her places, she wasn't ever mean, but the girl finally got the hint. It did however take way, way longer than it should have. Now they occasionally see each other and it's fine, and they maintain some level of friendship, I would just start responding the minimum that you can. Get a new im screenname and tell her you've decided to give it up to not waste time, take a day to respond to her texts and if she is just "updating" you, don't respond at all.

I don't think sitting her down and effectively "dumping" her is going to do it. In fact I think it will almost certainly backfire on you, she craves attention, even if it's negative. So I would give her as little attention as possible and eventually she will probably go away.
posted by whoaali at 4:20 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm not diagnosing her sight unseen, but google "borderline personality disorder" and glean from the advice given. She may or may not have this but the strategies for dealing with these kinds of behaviors would be similar.

This is sad, she truly is in a lot of pain, but unless you can get thru to her bluntly that her behavior is RUINING YOUR FRIENDSHIP you are gonna be stuck.
posted by konolia at 4:27 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Personally, (and I am no human relations expert) I would not encourage engaging her at this point. "Confronting her" may just give her more ammunition for drama. I think you have figured out that she's more of a drama queen/ needy /stalker than your actual good friend. Honestly, I know you want to be nice and you feel like you "owe her" but you really don't. That sounds mean but it isn't. I know she was there for you and probably feels like you owe her, but... Can you just not reply? I mean be nice (but standoffish) if you see her, but if she is contacting you 20 times a day feel free to ignore that. Seriously.

I had a similar thing happen when I was young around thirteen/fourteen (not saying this is juvenile - just universal). We were BFF and then because I listened to her and left my other friends and convinced my parents to let me change schools, I went to a new place and made new friends. Well she hated them too just like my friends at the last school (who were perfectly nice!) and it was that point I realized she was clearly a loon and much as I liked spending time with her personally it was a road to badness.

This is not someone that is capable of being a good friend right now- DISENGAGE. On the plus side it sounds like your life is now going really nicely. I'm happy for you. Don't feel guilty because hers is not. You can't fix that. Just move on and wish her well.
posted by mkim at 4:35 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow. I really sound like a bitch, don't I? I'm not really. I promise. I give advice I can't follow. I'm a big squishy pushover. BUT DON'T BE LIKE ME.
posted by mkim at 4:55 PM on February 2, 2008

A lot of people are giving you good advice about how to set boundaries and taper off or cut off contact. To that I would add the suggestion that you urge her to get some therapy. You say she admits her behaviour is terrible, so she might at least know at some level that she has a problem.
posted by orange swan at 5:20 PM on February 2, 2008

If any of the above advice proves to be a dead end, there's always the rude way:

Step 1: Dodge her. Avoid at all costs. Get caller ID and don't answer her calls.

If that's not possible,

Step 2: Flee her. If you bump into her, try to get away ASAP. See her on the street? Cross to the other side.

If for some reason you can't do that,

Step 3: Ignore her.

With a dash of

Step 4: Be an awful person whenever you're alone with her. Don't be mean towards her (we're not cheering for suicide here); aim for "intolerable." Grumpy. Boring. Annoying. Inattentive. Whatever you think might work. The goal at this point is to make her dump you.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:22 PM on February 2, 2008

I agree with 'whoalli' but at the same time if you ever do start feeling like you need to say something to her. Make sure you then tell someone else about the conversation and also document it (get a notebook, keep track of your contacts with her) so that if you did need a restraining order against her you could more easily obtain one. My sympathies to you. I have had a couple friends behave that way towards me in the past and you know, they were so normal at first I just didn't see it coming. It really blindsides you and you end up in an impossible situation where there's no way to look like a jerk for just finally getting some peace!
posted by mamaraks at 5:25 PM on February 2, 2008

Being in a past abusive relationship, you may have had your boundaries crossed so many times that her boundary-crossing behavior may have seemed mild compared to your ex. And now that you’re more aware, less vulnerable, and in a more stable place, you’re seeing her behavior for what it really is. Good for you for recognizing it.

To answer your question, at this point, I would say very bluntly but calmly that you are too busy to talk to her every day. “Amy, I am too busy to talk to you every day. If you call or email, I will not answer right away.” Don’t give her a time when you will be available or that is an opening for her to jump all over you during your free time. Put all her emails in a folder. Look at them later if you feel like it, save them for future reference. Don't feel obligate to respond to them.

If she persists, you could say, “Amy, I’m overwhelmed with all this stuff with your boyfriend. It’s draining me. I would really like it if you’d take it to someone else or see a therapist. In fact, I have to go right now because I have some important things to take care of.” Don’t give excuses or justify it, you are not required to do either. Would you rather continue hurting yourself or sting her a little bit with honesty? Pull the band-aid and get some air on it before it festers further.

I’ve said this to people and they puffed a bit and I said, “doesn’t mean I don’t like you, but this type of stuff is too much for me and I’d rather not be involved/hear about it anymore.” You may hear drama and grumbles and then an attempt to get you suckered in through your kindheartedness (follow through and hang up the phone, say you have to go to the bathroom or something and don’t respond to the IM after you’ve said you’re busy). You might have some internal gobblydegook and worry that you hurt her feelings and stress over it for a day or two. Another excuse is, “nothing personal, but spending lots of time with you reminds me of all the bad times with my ex, and my therapist said to get rid of reminders of that time.” Not quite as honest, but plausible.

Be prepared to be a broken record and follow through with your statements. “I am going now, good-bye.” Then hang up, even if she is still talking. Yes, it’s rude, but so is someone who keeps you on the line when you say you have to go. You got out of an abusive relationship with a guy, don’t let it continue with a girlfriend.

99% of people with clingy boundary issues will go find someone else. If she won’t, put a restraining order on her. My friend had to do this with a platonic friend last year, and it worked.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:52 PM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

This happened to me. I told my friend that her obsession with the guy was unhealthy and that because I cared about her, I was not going to contribute to her unhappiness by continuing to do anything to support her attempt to re- kindle the relationship. In fact, I was never going to talk about him with her again. I really did mean the best for my friend, who I miss, but she dropped me after that comversation.
posted by puddinghead at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2008

Agree with:

1) She might be Dangerous, protect yourself.

2) But she's probably not. The rude way works well with certain people. Some others need the friendly unavailability where you are nice as hell, but you know, hey, the refrigerator guy is here and I gotta run. Or find someone else that you don't like to be her friend.

Good luck!
posted by gjc at 5:56 PM on February 2, 2008

I had a similar problem with a drama-loving friend, though it hadn't gotten as bad as your situation. It had gotten bad enough that I she was 100% a drain on me and I got nothing from our relationship. I decided that continuing to hang out with her would not only ignore my own needs but would also disrespect her, because I would be doing it just out of a grim sense of responsibility, whether she realized it or not. It would be better for her as well as me to call it off. That made it easier to pull away (I used the avoidance techniques described above).

I also like puddinghead's suggestion.
posted by PatoPata at 5:57 PM on February 2, 2008

It sounds to me like her guilt trip on you (I was there for you, why aren't you there for me) is the biggest problem. You feel guilty. But reframe that -- you WERE there for her. You were there for each other. Own that. You have paid her back, you don't owe her anything.

Disengage, wish her well in your own mind, own the fact that you have given and you guys are even with each other.

The only purpose she serves in your life right now is for you to answer the question for yourself - how much uncomfortable behavior from another are you willing to put up with?

If you decide to cut things off with her, or call her on her behavior, what is the worst thing that can happen?

If she decides she hates you and badmouths you, how will that hurt you, given the fact that the rest of your friends don't like her?

The best way you can serve her is by being honest. By listening attentively to her problems and being the friend you once were, you keep her in a holding pattern where she doesn't grow, she doesn't learn, and she will never be happy. If you really care about her, be honest with her as kindly as possible. If she really cares about you, she wouldn't put you in such an awkward situation.
posted by kat at 6:07 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had the same thing happen to me. I agree with Konolia. Google Borderline Personality Disorder.

My friend was stalkerish too and jealous of my other relationships. My other friends didn't like her or want her tagging along because she was loud and annoying and socially awkward. No one could see what I saw in her, but she was a good person deep down. She just couldn't control her crazy thoughts/urges that resulted in her following me, accusing me of avoiding her if I didn't answer my phone etc. In the end I had to breakup with her. It didn't go over well. But she ended up thinking I was the jerk and writing me off. Thank God!

I say just bite the bullet and tell her exactly why you're ending the relationship. Good luck.
posted by heffalump at 6:47 PM on February 2, 2008

I was going to suggest something similar to what puddinghead said. Respond to anything about the ex-bf with "I really don't like hearing about you doing that. If you want to, that's your business, but please don't tell me about it."
posted by salvia at 6:59 PM on February 2, 2008

mkim, you don't sound like a b.. at all! You are way too hard on yourself!

Anyways, I agree that since your friend is a drama queen, you should not encourage the drama. Be as dull as you can. Think of how your "dumping" of your friend would look like in a Hollywood blockbuster and do the exact opposite.

Obviously, you can't be mean if that is not your nature. In addition, you might be a person who is a good listener who likes to be there for people. This is a good thing! But more importantly you need to be there for yourself first! Many of us are taught to take care of others before we took care of ourselves - and if every human on the planet did this, oh what a wonderful world it would be! - but alas this is not the case.

You don't need to be selfish or mean. Continue to be the same kind person you are - the world needs more people like you - but be that person to yourself now. If I came up to you with the same problem you have, how would you protect me? Well, do the same thing for yourself now! It is OK to think of yourself first, sometimes!

So how does a nice person get rid of an obsessive drama queen? Try to be as boring as you can. The next time she calls, try to talk about boring things. Like washing the dishes (not about how much you love/hate doing the dishes, but more like your dish-washing technique). Read long, long passages from a boring book (but pretend you are actually interested in them). Be like Bert not like Ernie! Think Cliff Claven, not Sam Malone!

If she talks about her problems, turn it into a problem about yourself. this is totally annoying - I knew someone who would always steer the conversation to her traumatic experiences. For example, if I would talk about a problem I was having, instead of consoling me, she would just start to say "oh yeah, I went through that..." and then talk about her life, and at the end, I was the one who ended up consoling her !

If you don't share in her drama. If you refuse to "oooh" and "aaah" and "OMG!" hopefully, she will get bored with you. Nobody wants to talk to someone they find boring.

Yes, she was there for you. But you were there for her. Now you are even. That's it. You paid her back. With interest. With the extra service fee as well!

Good luck!
posted by bitteroldman at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2008

Bitteroldman - thank you - and I am totally stealing talking about my "dish-washing technique" - genius!
posted by mkim at 8:02 PM on February 2, 2008

Don't feel guilty. She's doing to you what she does to the men in her life - scaring you off with her intensity. You did help her, you did try to be there for her, but she's sucking the life out of you and it's time to have it stop. I don't know if you are still in therapy, but your therapist might be able to help you figure this out too.

I like what puddinghead said. After that, change your cell number, and IM name. Filter her out of your emails or bounce them back if you can. Let your circle of friends know you're doing all this right before you do. And really, if she doesn't get a clue and leave you alone, look into a restraining order. Her behavior towards you, especially after you asking her to leave you be, is definitely harassing and stalking.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:26 PM on February 2, 2008

Please urge her to get some therapy. I am a former BPDer (I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria after a lot of therapy) and while I know that you need out, just suddenly completely ignoring her is probably going to make her escalate more. You need to sit her down and explain as gently (but firmly) as you can that you need your space, and set out VERY SPECIFIC "rules" about how she can or cannot contact you. If she won't leave your gym, you might need to quit. I would recommend a more gradual pullback for her sake... while at this point you may not care about "her sake", I think that if you make it easier for her to handle, she won't escalate as much and it might end up being easier on you too.

I got a taste of my own BPD medicine once, so to speak. I had a friend who sounds very much like your friend, but she wasn't diagnosed with anything... not even in therapy. The bottom line is, when I told her I needed my space, she wouldn't leave me alone... she started joining message boards I went to and things like that. I eventually ended up threatening to call the police, which is sad that it got that far. Finally, after a very long time, I just said to her "why do you want so badly to be my friend when it is clear that I no longer want to be yours?" Believe me, it was very painful to be on the other side, having to tell her what people had had to tell me.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:51 PM on February 2, 2008

I would give her as little attention as possible and eventually she will probably go away.

I agree with this (with the proviso that if the BPD thing is correct IndigoRain's advice may be more applicable). I had a similar situation—not nearly as bad, fortunately, but a woman who lived down the street became quite a nuisance some years ago. We'd met after my divorce and helped each other through bad times (she was madly in love with a guy who blah blah I don't even want to get into it), but eventually I moved on and she didn't, she was still making the same mistakes and telling the same stories and I just couldn't take it any more. I stopped hanging out with her, and every time we ran into each other (it's amazing how often you run into people in NYC) she'd say "Call me, I miss you!" and finally I left town without telling her. I feel mildly bad for her, but I guarantee you she's found other victims willing ears and is going on her merry self-destructive way.

Bottom line: you are not Amy's "only friend" or her lifeline, you are a convenient target for all her shit. Move out of the line of fire. You were there for her, and that's great, but it's not a lifetime commitment.
posted by languagehat at 6:59 AM on February 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

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