My friend is too dependent on me!

I think I need to dump her, but I don't know how

Published June 16, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Well, enough about pot for now. Though I do wish to take certain real-world positions, I am not a bloviator or a pundit or a political persuader. I am an investigator of the human condition, an intrepid explorer of the undergrowth of human emotion. So let's get back to answering a full range of letters -- whatever is on your mind. After my long absence, my mailbox has grown comparatively slim. So send me your outrages, your sorrows and tragedies and comedies, your befuddlements and bafflements and curiosities, and we will take up again our robust and wacky correspondence. Just make sure, as always, that you are ready to have your letter published. You will never be identified by name, but revealing your innermost thoughts can sometimes have unintended consequences. Not that they aren't good in the long run. I'm just saying: Think first. Then write!

Dear Cary,

I've been best friends with a woman for about seven years, after three years of being in a lesbian relationship with her. We have a lot of fun together going to festivals and street fairs, exhibits, hanging out at home watching movies. I know she would do anything for me, and has, from big to small: helping me recover from foot surgery, clipping coupons for me, etc. I have reciprocated. We share a pretty wacky outlook on the world, and we show each other sides of ourselves we otherwise keep under wraps.

But she also has long-standing, chronic, intractable physical and mental health problems, and in the past two years, the flare-ups have come far more often and last far longer, and include suicidal crises, trips to the ER/doctor (I take her), and the like. I'm emotionally spent. I have tried to set and hold boundaries, including telling her right out that when she starts feeling suicidal, she needs to call the crisis hotline and talk to people trained to help her. I have had to struggle constantly to not keep falling into the routine of spending every weekend together, and not just going out for activities, but the entire weekend. If she comes over to my place on Saturday to do something, she stays the entire weekend, even over Sunday night, despite my more than once asking her not to.

I just can't handle being responsible for talking someone out of suicide. I can't handle the constant medical crises, the canceled plans, the overall neediness. I am her only friend. Her family, a sister she has a tenuous connection with, and her father, live 160 miles away. She has told me more than once that she has no one else, and that she will not be able to cope with my moving out of town. A distant relative offered to help her move back home last year, and find her an apartment, and she turned down the offer because she couldn't survive without my being nearby.

I recently lost my dad, and my mother and sister died several years ago. My dad was sick for a long time and would not take help, which my friend repeats in her actions. She does not work but lives on disability.

So I am under a lot of emotional stress myself. Trying to be supportive of her -- indeed, simply continuing this type of excessively dependent friendship -- is affecting my emotional well-being. I think it is time to "dump" my best friend, but every time I get ready to do it, I think, what happens if she goes off the deep end? I am really all she has.

I am at a loss on what to do and, more important, how to do it. It's one thing to talk in general terms, yes, you need to step away. It's another to know concretely the tactics, the wording, etc. Help! I'm feeling emotionally suffocated!


Dear Suffocated,

Yes, it is hard to put into concrete terms how you will regain the territory you have ceded to her. But here are some suggestions.

The idea is to make the situation manageable. Let's not create trauma. Let's not make a big dramatic scene. This person is part of your life.

First, get a new friend. Pick someone you like and start spending time with him or her. Second, take up a new activity that your friend does not like. If she hates camping, start going camping. If she hates bowling, join a league. Make plans with others without consulting her. See how that feels. Feel yourself moving away from her sphere of dependency into an autonomous zone.

By increasing the amount of time you spend doing things without her, you create some space for yourself.

So that is tactical. The other part is personal. It involves gaining some insight. Relationships are full of mirrors. The quickest way to change what is going on is to learn to see what we ourselves are doing.

So while you are focused on the ways in which she is dependent, I suggest that you also explore the ways in which you are dependent on her. How do you depend on her dependency?

Ask yourself what rewards her dependency gives you. You might first answer that she is the dependent one, that there are no ways in which you are dependent! But dig deeper. For instance, do you sometimes fail to make plans with others because you assume she will be there? That is a kind of dependency. You may view it as a hindrance, but consider the ways in which it is a secret reward. After all, making new friends is work. It involves risk and compromise and potential hurt. It feels good to complain that she will not go away, because underneath that is the reassurance that she will not go away.

So what if she did go away? Ask yourself this, and be honest: What if she abandoned you? What if she found a new friend to be dependent on? How would it feel to be replaced? Be honest with yourself: Would not some part of you be upset at the change?

There is also something here about being a friend or loved one to someone with very deep problems. It's not that she's an alcoholic or drug addict, but still, some of the principles of Al-Anon may apply. You might look into such organizations for tips on how to maintain boundaries around someone who is deeply troubled. You might also be well advised to meet personally with a suicide prevention worker in order to suss out just what the risks are of your friend committing suicide, and to find out what actions you yourself might take if you sense that she is in danger of harming herself.

I think you will find that you are more deeply dependent on her than you realized, and that the relationship is not just one you can cut off. Complicating this, you have recently had some saddening losses in your family.  The thing about family is that we do not abandon them -- and they do not abandon us! She has become family. So of course you cannot dump her. It's not that you do not know how, any more than what keeps you from committing murder is that you do not know how. You are restrained from this because it is not the proper action. It may have begun as romance but now it is family, and while you can dump a romantic partner you cannot really dump family. With family, we create boundaries but we do not abandon them.

"Dumping" is what we do with trash, not with cherished companions. Cherished companions we deal with.

So make incremental changes, and become aware of how her dependency functions in your life.

It's very much like a natural process, like gardening, say. If a tree is crowding out other plants, you don't remove the tree, stump and all. Instead, you make adjustments. You influence the tree's growth. You change the arrangements surrounding the tree. You prune.

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By Cary Tennis

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