My former friend torments me

I miss her but she's toxic. Will things ever change?

By Cary Tennis
Published November 24, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

Hi Cary,

My problem is a small one in the big scheme of things and when compared to the problems of other people. I had a falling out with a friend. I feel guilty because I feel so free and so happy to be out of the friendship that at times was wonderful but at times absolutely toxic. This friendship lasted decades; we grew up next door to one another. Her parents were homebodies and so was she and when I went to her house we would watch movies or play board games and have a wonderful time.

Outside of her house, the friendship would become strained. I would include her with my other friends because I wanted to include her or she would ask me point blank to include her, but then she would find some reason not to have a good time. She didn't like so and so. I danced and talked too much at a party, and she would tell me that such behavior was egotistical. In fact she is quite fond of criticizing my basic personality. She likes that I am outgoing when it benefits her, and criticizes me for it when it doesn't. She would complain and act very victimized by the whole thing, but would act very hurt and also victimized when I didn't include her. So it was often a lose-lose situation. but again, having coffee at her house was wonderful as were our discussions of books, etc. We both left the neighborhood but later returned as adults.

She has always been the type who would never show up for you as a real friend, like in a difficult situation where you might really need a friend. She whines about going to funerals and wakes for family members of even close friends because she feels uncomfortable.

She shunned me greatly after my child was born; my daughter was a wonderful surprise package and I really had to scramble in those early years on all fronts. Most of the time, she wouldn't return my phone calls and would barely say hello to me on the street. I was hurt but backed off.

Then later, she tried to have a child, had fertility issues, but then had a very cute little girl and we settled into a kind of acquaintance thing where she would say hello to me and sometimes we would run into each other at a neighborhood cookout. But then all of a sudden, and this is after a good 10 years had passed, she wanted me to once again include her in things I was doing. I had built a great life for my child by this point: She was thriving; doing well academically; was on the track team; played the trumpet; had lots of friends.

But my former friend and her child spend a lot of time at home and her husband I guess was pretty emotionally distant. Well, I could tell after a couple of outings that things were going to be the way they used to be: me including her, her complaining. Also, if I get a new job or get a part in a local play, she will always belittle some aspect of what I am doing. And we had just grown too far apart for me to want to put up with it. So, I tried to talk to her about the shunning when my child was little, and I tried to talk to her about her complaining. And she handed me my head on a platter, recounted everything I had ever done to make her mad, and threw me under the bus with her family to a point where they won't even say hello to me.

I think she was expecting me to kiss her butt, because that is often what I did when we were young to keep the peace. But I was too old now for butt kissing, and my child and I had so many nice, wonderful, true-blue, always-there-for-you friends, that all this melodrama just seems toxic.

She seems to want to be friends and looks sad when I see her. But my heart just isn't in it. I have several friendships going back to elementary school that are wonderful. I have made friends later in life that are incredible. I just don't want to be with someone who is going to belittle me and blame me for her unhappiness. I want to set a good example for my child, who seems to have such healthy friendships. But I do feel bad when I run into her somewhere and she looks so sad when she sees me. I know she feels somehow abandoned and maybe she's right.

Sad about my friend

Dear Sad,

Well, I think the truth is pretty clear. This became a bad friendship and so it had to end. That happens. And you feel bad about it. That's natural. It's unfortunate.

But so it goes. Let it be as it is and accept the discomfort. Then see how you can take care of yourself in the discomfort. Watch what you are doing in the discomfort. You can't change the fact of it. So when you feel bad about this, just pay attention to how you feel, and know that it's natural to feel this way. You may wish to change things, but wishing to change things that you cannot change is sometimes a substitute for just acknowledging reality and going on with living.

So go on with living. It sounds like you went through some tough times and now things are pretty good. That's beautiful. Enjoy it.

It doesn't sound like you do crazy or destructive things when you feel sad. That's good. Some of us do. Some of us try to avoid feeling bad because we can't handle feeling bad. Since we can't handle feeling bad, we arm ourselves against feeling, and then when bad feelings do come we fear they will engulf us so we have to shoot some drugs.

But you sound healthy. And your friend sounds like she has problems that you can't fix. And if you try to be her friend you will just be her victim. So you're doing the right thing, and your feelings are normal, and the only thing you have to watch out for is the danger of being lured back into her trap of need and scorn and self-centered drama. Whatever her trip is, it's clear that she has needs that she meets by drawing others into her world. And she only does this when it suits her needs. So friendships will always be one-sided. And it's likely that the pattern is that when she's drained her husband or caused him to withdraw then she has to go outside and seek others to drain. So she will periodically show up wanting to be "friends." And you have to resist. Because you know what will happen.

If it's any consolation, when you see her feeling sad, it's not like a regular person feeling sad. That is, when we've offended a regular person, we can engage and apologize and empathize and reach some common ground, and know that based on our mutual understanding, next time will be a little different. Maybe we won't completely fix all the strange ways we interact, but there will be shared knowledge that certain things happen in our friendship, and we'll both be trying to steer it in a better direction. But with a person like this, there won't be any change, because she's not synthesizing experience and consciously growing. Instead, she's in the grip of something unacknowledged and perhaps unknowable to her. So you may be serving as the object of her focus, but ... and you probably feel this ... you're not really there to her. She doesn't really see you. She sees a mirage.

This is sad but also freeing. Since you don't really exist as a person to her, you needn't feel responsible for how you are making her feel. You are just the representation of something that she wants and cannot have. Maybe that's wholeness, or authenticity, or acceptance -- whatever it is that she wants and cannot get. You are an interchangeable element in her disappointment. So don't be drawn in. Understand that her sadness is global and persistent, no matter who comes and goes in her orbit.

I think you understand this. My impression is that you're not really looking for somebody to explain it as much as you just need somebody to remind that this is the way it is, that it's sad, that it happens and there's nothing you can do about it right now, that you didn't do anything wrong and there's nothing you can do to fix it. So I'll just remind you to let it be. Let it be what it is.

Accept it, maintain your boundaries and know that it's not your fault and it's not your problem. Live your life and take care of yourself. Love your daughter and cherish your friends. Have a good Thanksgiving.

That Special Time of Year

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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