I’m a 73-year-old female who is outgoing, confident, and sociable. I have no problem telling people how I feel and am no “shrinking violet.” My problem is that I have a friend who is mean-spirited and nasty. Time and time again she has hurt my feelings and made me feel terrible. We live in the same neighborhood and daven at the same shul but I can’t remember how we actually became pals. She and I have a mutual friend, but that came later and is not how we met.
We speak several times a week, and although I have repeatedly tried to distance myself from her by calling her less frequently and by taking only some of her calls, I have not been successful at cutting her out of my life entirely.
Now and then, when the pain of something nasty that she has said becomes too much for me, I will vent to other close and kind friends about how hurt I am. Each one of them has urged me repeatedly to get out of this relationship, but I can’t seem to do it. I give reasons why I cannot: it would be awkward because we see one another in shul; it would pose a problem because of the friend that we have in common; etc. My other friends are not buying it and they get frustrated with me. I don’t blame them.
One close friend no longer allows me to cry on her shoulder. She recently yelled at me. Her exact words were “I don’t want to hear another word. If you choose to stay in this relationship and continue to speak to her, then stop complaining, because you deserve what you get.” Another close friend is gentler with me but is perplexed by my inability to end the friendship.
I’ve tried to be self-analytical, but, as I have no training in the field, I’m out of my element. I still don’t understand the reason for my behavior. As a child I was difficult in the extreme. I was considered “hard to handle,” and my mother couldn’t deal with me. She would call my father at work to vent to him about my behavior and I knew that when he got home that evening I would be beaten by him. I was a problem in school, in camp, and everywhere else.
My brother was the “good” kid and I was the “bad” one. On one occasion, in the car with my family, my mother stuck her hand out the car window and pointed to two dark and dreary buildings. She told me that one was the “the school for bad boys” and the other was the one for “bad girls” and that, if I didn’t start behaving better, she would send me there to live. I can still remember the terror I felt.
I’m not sure if I have a subconscious fear of abandonment as a result of that or if it’s something else that prevents me from terminating a friendship that gives me far more pain than pleasure. I sincerely hope you can help me.
For someone who hasn’t had any training in analysis, you’re certainly good at looking within and trying to connect the dots in order to understand why it is so hard for you to let go of this friendship, which is clearly fraught with pain—and maybe even a certain amount of shame (that you are allowing yourself to be treated poorly again and again).
Before we go too deep, let’s take a moment to look at this friendship. Let’s call the nasty one “Jane.” Clearly, Jane feels comfortable saying or doing things that you find hurtful. But does Jane offer you anything positive? Friendships are often a mixed bag, and so we sometimes tolerate behaviors we don’t really enjoy, because we are also receiving certain kindnesses or favors that are hard to resist. Take the friend who feels compelled to tell you that your new dress really makes you look heavy, but is the first to run and do your grocery shopping when you’re sick in bed. It becomes confusing. Is she friend or foe?
So to begin with, I’d like you to think about what this particular friend has been offering to you and in what way she is adding to the quality of your life. If the answer is “in no way,” then your work is much easier. But if she hurts and helps, you have to decide whether you are willing to contend with the nasty remarks because there is too much at risk here that you don’t want to give up.
Now let’s look at the issue of abuse, which comes up so often in this column, rearing its ugly head in all sorts of relationships. When Jane says something hurtful to you, do you just suck it up or do you call her on it? Rather than run to your other friends and complain, I suggest you ask her why she would say such a thing. Insist on an answer. Don’t allow Jane to wiggle her way out of answering the question. If she insists that she wasn’t trying to hurt you, make sure she understands that that’s irrelevant, since she does hurt you! Maybe this is how Jane treats everyone in her life and somehow gets away with it. It’s your duty to make it clear to Jane that she is no longer allowed to speak to you in a way that leaves you feeling hurt. Maybe you’ll get lucky and she’ll be able to “hear” you. But maybe you won’t. If she is unable to refrain from her catty remarks, the hard work begins.
You’ve already tried figuring out why you might feel so threatened at the thought of ending this relationship. Whatever the reason, most people feel some level of sadness letting go of someone who has played a key role in their life for many years. It can leave a hole, and that creates an uncomfortable feeling and some sadness. Probably that’s part of the reason why so many people stay in bad marriages and in other types of awful relationships. Bad or even horrendous, it can still feel as though they are losing a piece of themselves.
And perhaps that is where your fear lies. By signing off with Jane, how will you manage that hole? That space that was once filled by a presence that certainly offered pain, but maybe also offered some good stuff? Will you be able to tolerate the change?
It sounds as though you have plenty of friends and that you are not by any means socially isolated. Nature hates a void, and holes get filled up. The place in your heart that was once filled with Jane’s presence will eventually get filled with other friends or perhaps even some new ones. You are not being abandoned. You are not being punished for being “a bad girl.” You are choosing to surround yourself with positive people and positive energy. It’s a gift that you can decide to give to yourself, because you deserve to be treated with kindness.
Again, if there is also some good stuff in this relationship, I would encourage you to try and have an honest conversation with her first, so that she has the opportunity to understand how her behavior is toxic. Maybe hearing it from you will be a gift to her, allowing her the opportunity to look at herself honestly and to think about making some much-needed changes in her behavior. But if not, it’s all part of your journey that keeps you moving forward and growing, as you continue to nurture yourself and the relationships in your life that are healthy and honest.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.