Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 12, 2012
After 15 years, suddenly she’s moody and unreachable — and I think it’s her boyfriend’s fault
I’m sure you’ve had letters similar to mine, but I’m sure there are others who might benefit by knowing it’s not just them who’ve dealt with a toxic friendship in their lives. I’ve dated some toxic men; one who was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. I dated him off and on for about two years. During that time, I was aware that he was not the right one. When I finally had my fill of his BS, I walked away from the relationship. It took Al-Anon and some counseling for me to see the light and gain strength to move on, but I did move on. I have not dated anyone seriously in over three years. Had a few dates but nothing that really clicked.
I’ve had a friend (L.) for about 15 years whom I grew close to due to our part-time jobs in retail (we both moonlight there) and I also lived one street over from her until she moved down a few streets to another house. She has been married five or six times but I’ve only known her last ex-husband. He seemed like a nice guy and she has kids with him. She also had cheated on him (according to her and others). She has dated R. for about five years. R. is a recovered cocaine addict who went through rehab four times before becoming and staying clean and sober. He attended N.A. meetings until he no longer had to (due to court dealings). In the beginning, L. seemed really happy with R. and she and I seemed to get even closer due to some illnesses and surgeries she had a couple of years ago. R. was somewhat supportive when she had cancer but was totally not around when she had her knee replaced later that same year. It was around that time that I suspected that he was not the great guy she thought he was. I had felt like L. was a sister figure to me. We did have a bond and there was a sister love there, for sure. Then, this past year (July to be more exact), L. started to act moody and unhappy. She was short with me at work and didn’t talk much. The following week she apologized to me and things seemed better. Then, only a few weeks later, she comes to work one night and acts angry at everyone. She would hardly talk to anyone and she was trying to give all her work hours away that week (apparently due to personal issues). When I left that night, I told her to call me if she wanted to talk. She called me the next day to apologize again for her behavior and said I was her closest friend and that she should not treat me that way. I was sure whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with me. She was fine for the most part but you could still see this edge to her that wasn’t settling. Later (while at her house to drop off something), I tried to talk to her about her behavior and how even co-workers had asked me what her problem was. I urged her to talk to a counselor if she could not or would not talk to me. I told her that I loved her and cared about her and that she knew she could call me. She said she knew these things.
Even though she knows these things, her bizarre, hot-and-cold behavior has persisted since this past summer. She sort of blew off my birthday and we didn’t do my birthday lunch until about a month later (and invited co-workers from her day job whom I didn’t know that well). I’ve always taken her out to dinner and given her a card or small gift. I felt slighted and disrespected with how she handled my birthday this past year as we had always done dinner together with just the two of us before.
I’ve known for quite a while what her problem really was and it’s a boyfriend who I believe is not only controlling, but emotionally and verbally abusive. Another friend of hers got engaged around the time she started behaving weird, so I also think that contributed to her overall attitude and behavior. Since that time, it’s a 50-50 chance on what her mood will be. She will be aloof, removed from people or act perfectly fine depending on how she is feeling about her guy. For Christmas, he gave her a ring but made clear it was not an engagement ring and that they were not getting married. She wants marriage (why I’m not sure) and he does not. She has vowed not to live with this man, but last week told me that they were going to move in together later in the summer. I suspect that she will see even less of her friends than she is now. We used to talk regularly on the phone. She has called me a time or two in recent weeks, but I have vowed to not call her unless she calls me and I need to return her call. To sum it all up, I’ve been treated badly by this friend. She has been short, hateful and downright ignored me at various times during the last five or six months. True friends don’t treat people in this manner. And while I can see that the boyfriend is the real issue, I can’t sit around and wait for her to see the light. I’ve returned to my Al-Anon meetings as I’ve found that the principles taught also help with other relationship issues (even those where there is no substance abuse). In reality, her guy might be clean and sober but he’s no longer in his own meetings, which would help him stay centered. He abuses and controls L. who then takes out her frustration on the very people who love and care for her the most.
Really good friendships are hard to find. I’ve been there for L. always and don’t feel like I’ve ever let her down but I can’t say the same about her for me. I would never, ever let a man come between her and me, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. I want her to be happy and she’s always had a guy during the entire time we’ve been friends, but this guy has her brainwashed. He doesn’t want her to spend time with me or even her kids. That seems plainly obvious to me.
This whole situation has hurt terribly. In some ways, it’s just as painful as letting go of a romantic relationship. You don’t expect your friends to hurt you as badly as a guy can. Maybe, in time, she will see the light. In the meantime, I realize I need to be around more positive friends — ones who don’t take out their frustrations on me instead of the person who is really upsetting them. It’s so very hard to move on, isn’t it?
I would appreciate some advice and tips for accepting this situation as it is because I don’t see any possibility in the near future that she will leave this guy.
Hurt By a Friend
Dear Hurt By a Friend,
This letter contains two important things, things that are hard to learn, things that are painful to accept, hard, priceless little gems that point to bigger truths. One is how the principles of Al-Anon can help in relationships where no drugs and alcohol are involved. The other is how friendships can be just as painful as romantic relationships.
I love that those two things come out here. That is why I chose to print this letter, because while I may not have any brilliant answers for you, people who read this letter and think about it will see the patterns here and may recognize similar things in their own lives and may be moved to take action that will free them from those patterns.
Frankly, for me, reading this letter mainly just makes me realize how bad a friend I’ve been over the past few years. When I think about how I treat my friends, well, it’s not pretty. I’m so thoughtless and self-involved! I am! It’s terrible! I am a terrible friend! I have no time for my friends! I’m so wrapped up in other things! I’m over-scheduled! I’m obsessed with my “work.” And if you ever do get me for dinner or lunch or just to hang out, I’ve got one eye on the clock; I’m thinking about some story or some song.
I should be in a band. I should live in a tribe. I belong in a supervised unit. I’m not much good at being a secular adult. It’s really kind of pathetic.
But I go on. I write my column and do my stuff. It’s all very magical and cool. But I am a terrible friend. So that’s my resolution for the New Year: I’m going to be a better friend. So watch out if you think you are a friend of mine! I’m coming for you. I’ll be on your porch! I’ll be hanging out in your backyard! I’ll be throwing stones at your window!
See, that’s my model of friendship; it’s something I crystallized when I was 12 and hasn’t changed. When I was 12, I knew how to have a friend. You rode bikes around and played with stuff and talked. That was a friend. Sometimes you snuck out at night. You had adventures. You explored stuff, like broken ships’ hulls, and swamps and forests, and you captured small invertebrates and studied them. That was a friend. What is a friend now? I dunno! Someone you have dinner with? I hate the having dinner with! Having dinner with is not fun! Dinner is what you have to quit playing and come in the house to have! Dinner is something your friend can’t come out because he’s having! Why is everyone always having dinner? I don’t want dinner! I want to go out in a boat!
Having dinner is too adult. I want beanbag chairs and an outdoor swing. I want party treats, noisemakers and funny hats. I want cake and a screaming fit.
Seriously, I think everything I know about friendship I learned when I was 12 and I’d like to go back to riding bikes and playing war and talking about nothing we understood.
Except I don’t like to ride bikes anymore. That’s the problem, see? I don’t even know how to have fun as an adult even if I had friends to have fun with! I don’t like riding bikes anymore because it’s not fun. Now it’s work, it’s a way to get to Petaluma in only five hours, it’s sanctioned races and funny shorts. What’s fun for me now? Going down to the seawall to watch the sunset. We have a pretty-new friend, Madison, who joins us on the seawall for the sunset. That’s our fun. We have a few other friends, too, and they know who they are and how badly we treat them. But mostly, it’s us cleaning the house and me frowning over numbers.
Every therapist I’ve ever been to asks me what I do for fun. Are they trying to tell me something?
But enough about me, right? Because you see what’s going on here, right? You see why I’ve got no friends? Because it’s all about me! You come looking for a sympathetic ear and I turn it all to me. Isn’t that typical?
Sorry. But look, you’re the strong one here. You’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t hurt. They are. And you deserve to be treated well. But you know, going to Al-Anon and all, you know the limits; it may be time to mourn the passing of this friendship and find some people you can have fun with. Your friend is caught up in something that you can’t fix, and you know that. And you know that toxic relationships can seem a lot like drug addictions: The person is irritable and moody, unreliable, disappears on you, doesn’t show up, is erratic, misses work … just like a drug addict.
You know all this from your Al-Anon meetings. Wow, thank God for Al-Anon.
So what I want to give you is some encouragement to go out and enjoy yourself and find some new friends who appreciate what you have to offer. You know the drill. You’ll be there for this friend of yours when she comes around, if she comes around, but you’re not going to chase her down. You can politely decline invitations if they’re not going to be the one-on-one situations that you require. You don’t have to sit with a bunch of strangers like some out-of-towner.
You were her best friend. That meant something. Now she’s lost to you. So mourn that. Mourn it deeply. It was a beautiful thing. Mourn that thing but do not go chasing after her. Be strong. Turn to others who are happy and healthy and can enjoy your company and make you laugh.
Pray for her, if that’s what you do. Offer her Al-Anon. Let her know that if her relationship ever gets to be too much, there is a group that can help her. Just let her know it’s there, and be willing to take her to a meeting if she ever wants to go.
And then let it be. Take some heat off yourself. There are people out there who want to be friends. There are people out there who know how to be friends. (God knows I don’t!) So look around you and let some friendships happen. Let them happen.