Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything: Friends, What Are They Good For?
I’ll be honest — this week’s question is one that has been haunting me for weeks. After the Overlords unpacked it amongst ourselves in a pretty epic discussion, I continued to sit on it. I have written and re-written this one in my head countless times before turning it in (sorry, Dustin!), and I think once you read the question yourself you’ll see why. It’s a straight-forward problem — whether to make up with a friend or let the relationship end — that belies its painful, complex context. And frankly, I’m worried that this week I might actually do more harm than good.
So uh, on that note let’s do this thing, ammirite?
[Reminder: You too can send your problems to the Overlords for dissection at [email protected]. Though maybe you won’t want to, after this. I dunno. Y’all are a tough crowd sometimes.]
I’m a 30 year old straight cis woman, and I’ll start this off by saying I’ve had a spectacularly hard year (who hasn’t, I guess.) I was living abroad for a few years but my Visa ran out and I had to move back to a place I have a very tortured relationship with. I got really sick, and had to give up a really big professional opportunity that would have cemented a stable career path. I learned that my best guy friend was abusing the women in his life, and so I ended our friendship. My boyfriend of over a year left me without a word - literally, without a word - which triggered a seriously bad episode of PTSD that I had leftover from a previously abusive relationship. So on top of having to get over the relationship, I had a really bad bout of panic attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, and I literally didn’t leave my house for a few months.
To try recover, I went on a trip with a friend, and while away, I was sexually assaulted. When I told my friend what happened, she literally ignored me for the rest of the trip, because my “emotions were making her uncomfortable.” Eh…sorry?? I had previously lived with this woman for 2 years, we had bonded over feminism, I thought of her as a sister. Since I flew home, I haven’t heard a word from her.
Back home, I’ve spent the year not being sociable or reintegrating that well (or at all), because my confidence has been battered and I’m too anxious to try meet new people on my own. My best friend here, who I’ve known for literally over a decade, knows everything that has happened this year and that I’ve been really struggling. I’ve spent the year asking for help in one specific way: I need help meeting people, making friends, being included in social stuff. She should be great at that - she’s very sociable, knows a lot of cool, feminist women, goes to a lot of events. But it’s a year on, and she never has. Literally, she’s never included me in any social stuff, from nerdy events and gigs to just meeting up with people for dinner/drinks, though she has asked to hang out very occasionally when she wants to vent about her relationship, or have a shopping buddy - which would be fine if the friendship felt more well-rounded, but it doesn’t. I brought it up with her and she immediately became defensive, saying she texts me a lot, which is true. But that is not what I’ve been asking for (repeatedly, explicitly), and I’m really angry that she hasn’t stepped up. I told her I was really disappointed in her for not doing this pretty basic, normal friendship thing - especially when she knew how important it was - and said I needed a break from our friendship.
We haven’t spoken since that conversation and I’m feeling humiliated and angry. I have so few friends in my hometown that I’m really lonely and hate being in a fight with her. But I also feel like I cannot sustain another dynamic that involves me asking very clearly for what (I feel) are very basic things like “Please at least text me to tell me that you’re breaking up with me, so I don’t think you’re dead and you’re not enacting my worst trigger”, or “Please ask me if I’m okay and acknowledge my existence after you hear I’ve been sexually assaulted while we’re travelling together”, or “Please invite me to some of the social events you are constantly going to, because you say I’m your best friend, and I’m telling you I need help meeting people, and that seems like a very normal thing a friend would do.”
She hasn’t tried to get in touch, and I don’t know what to do. I both know that I told her I need space, and am pissed that it’s now on me to do the fixing — which I know is contradictory. But (in petty, millennial terms) I have still been retweeting her stuff & supporting her work online (important in our fields) because us having a personal issue doesn’t seem like a reason not to continue supporting each other’s professional stuff - but she’s gone absolutely radio silent on all of those fronts, which feels like an extra dig. I’m finding it hard to want to reach out and end the “break” because I resent the whole situation and I resent having to come up with the solution. I don’t know what else to say to her other than “This was really easy, you should have stepped up in a a very easy way, and you didn’t.” She’s never taken criticism well, which is why I didn’t pull her up on it properly for a whole year, so half of me thinks maybe I should just cut my losses. But I also know that I’m probably hyper-defensive right now, and to be honest the past year of people acting like my emotions are too much and that asking for the basics is too much has made me feel like a crazy person, so I don’t know if actually, this is my fault. I feel stuck and don’t know how to move forward.
Thanks so much,
Begging For Basics
Oh dear. I know you’re asking about the immediate problem of what to do about your friend, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t address all of the horrible shit you’ve been through before this latest hurdle. Though I don’t have enough information to unpack it all, you’ve experienced a gamut of things from bad luck to betrayal to true trauma — and that leaves a mark I can barely begin to fathom. So I want to start off by making it clear that what you’re experiencing — the anxiety, the insomnia, the fear of abandonment, the battered confidence and the feeling of not being heard — is completely understandable. Of course you’re struggling! Anyone in your position would be! And you’re also right that you DO need help.
But here is where I may need to inject a little tough love, because I don’t think the help you need is the help your friend could ever have provided. You need the help of a good therapist.
[And that’s a whole other issue on its own, from costs to finding the right provider. I know it’s not an easy fix. It takes time and effort. But for what you’ve been through, I think professional help is the first and best answer. If you aren’t already talking to someone, SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has some resources that may help, from a hotline (1-800-662-HELP) to a Treatment Services Locator. You can also call 2-1-1 for help finding treatment resources in your area.]
Look, I get why you are focusing on the need to make new friends right now. The solution to a feeling of isolation is to end that isolation, right? And that means being social! I admire the way you’re willing to put yourself back out there — to get back on that horse again, if you will. But let’s take a step back for a minute. What are your goals in terms of building up your social life? Are you looking for distraction — a few nights out of the house with interesting people, and no strings attached? Or are you looking for replacements to fill the holes left by the people who are no longer in your life? Are you looking for close friends to rely on when you’re in need?
I ask because my concern is that you’re focusing on filling a hole in your life (which is real, don’t get me wrong!) without focusing on why that hole is hurting you so much. Your loneliness is compounded, I imagine, by legitimate trust issues and a fear of abandonment. And until those are addressed, making new friends will be hard. Basically: Is what you think you WANT actually what you NEED? What if you cling to the first person you meet, and they’re not good for you? Will that start the cycle of broken trust and abandonment all over again? Or what if you meet someone you’d like to get to know, and give them your number, and they never respond to you? There are so many ways this endeavor could further erode your confidence, and thus further isolate you. Which isn’t to say making friends is a bad thing, but it’s hardly a simple matter.
And I’m wondering if that may be part of why your friend didn’t respond to your requests. Because let’s face it — that’s a lot of responsibility. Not only because you’re putting the full weight of everything you’re struggling with on her to fix, but because being a friend to someone in pain isn’t always a simple thing. What you’ve experienced is awful, but it’s also hard in a different way to watch someone you care about go through something that awful. There’s a helplessness that comes with loving someone and not knowing how to really help them. I don’t know everything that’s been going through your friend’s mind this past year, but it isn’t tough to imagine there could be a fear of taking you out, and you getting hurt, and then feeling responsible for that — especially if she, like me, thinks that making friends won’t prove to be the fix you might think it’ll be.
But maybe I’m wrong! Maybe she was being lazy, or selfish. When you spoke to her about it, were you simply pointing out that she hadn’t done as you’d asked, or did you ask her why she wasn’t inviting you to social gatherings? Because there’s a lot of ways that conversation could have played out.
As for the situation right now? Honestly, I think she’s respecting your space. You initiated this break, and it’s up to you to reach out to her and end it. After all, you were originally upset with her because she didn’t do what you’d asked — is it fair to now be upset with her because she IS doing what you asked? Of course, that doesn’t mean your desire to want her to reach out first isn’t understandable, but I do wonder if it is also rooted in your fears of abandonment. Were you unconsciously testing her — pushing her away to see how hard she’d fight to hold on to you?
If you value her as a friend, then reconnect with her and take it from there. Talk to her about your concerns, and how her behavior made you feel, but also ask her about her own concerns. Listen to her reasons, and what she’s been thinking, and go from there. Maybe she’s been looking out for you in her own way all this time, or maybe she isn’t a very good friend after all. One of the toughest things to realize is that our friends perhaps aren’t the type of friends we want them to be. Some will stick with you through thick and thin, ride or die, and some are only around for a good time. It’s OK to have both types in your life, but it hurts to find out that someone you looked at as family doesn’t look at you the same way.
And if you still want to improve your social life, make sure you’re trying to help yourself before you rely on someone else to do it for you. I know it’s scary — you have every reason to be scared! — but there are ways to put yourself out there (we’ve even written an entire column about it!). And the best part is that if you do it on your own, it may help you build up your flagging confidence. Because — and here’s the real cynical Pajiban take coming through — in the end, the only person who will ever truly be with you through thick and thin is yourself. So whether it’s phoning a hotline, sitting down with a therapist, or volunteering at an animal shelter —do what you can to take care of yourself, Begging.
We’re rooting for you.
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