Within my friend group there is one woman who has brought so much stress and turmoil to us over the past few years. For so long we have all excused her rude, aggressive behaviour, as she had a family bereavement and is quite fragile despite being well able to dish out “banter” with us. She has picked fights with me over misconstrued words, talked down to me, gone AWOL with me after these explosive episodes, and never apologised.
I don’t think she realises how belittling and stressful she is being. I tried to explain how she made me feel after the last blow-up, but she cried and I chickened out and folded again. I hate confrontation but hate not settling difficulties more, so I always reach out – and then feel like a fool again (and again).
This woman picks fights with work colleagues, her family and us, her friends. They usually happen close to a big occasion, and I know it’s always rooted in insecurity, but I can’t keep feeling like a punchbag. How do I address this? We all have so much going on in our lives that I could really do without the unnecessary drama and negativity. I have tried so many times to be supportive, and make her feel loved, but she gives nothing in return and is completely unreliable. Help!
Roe McDermott replies: I usually don’t tackle purely friendship-related questions, but boundary-setting and communication are skills that benefit all relationships, and the new year feels like a good time to think about what we want from 2023. That includes thinking about the important relationships in our lives, how they are serving us, and how we want to show up both for the people around us and for ourselves.
There are three things that I want you to really embrace and bring into this year. The first is that you deserve friendships that are based on positivity, reciprocity, affection, loyalty, open communication and enthusiasm. The second is that expressing your feelings is not an act of harm, and someone else’s feelings do not inherently reflect an objective truth about the universe. The third is that empathy and boundaries are not mutually exclusive.
Your friend has experienced a bereavement, and of course that is difficult. But it is unclear from your description – and indeed you may not know – how much of her rude, aggressive, condescending behaviour is being caused by grief and how much of it was pre-existing.
You need to decide how you want to show up for yourself and for her. Do you need to take a break from her, for your own sake?
But even if these outbursts are coming from grief, anger and despair, you can support someone while still addressing their behaviour and setting some boundaries – indeed, sometimes not letting someone self-destruct and destroy their friendships and working relationships is a very necessary type of support.
People who are grieving or suffering can often perceive the world in a warped way where they feel paranoid or judged or hypervigilant, which can lead to them responding aggressively or harshly, as they always feel like they are under attack and need to protect themselves.
That’s a very difficult way to experience the world. But you can empathise with someone’s struggles without pretending that they are reacting objectively, and without taking responsibility for their responses.
You say your friend has been acting this way for a couple of years, which means that you have been supporting her, sticking by her, forgiving her, glossing over her actions and absorbing her aggression and rudeness for a long time. Your loyalty is admirable – and it’s time to change tactic. Because her behaviour isn’t changing; because if this continues you’re not going to be able to stay friends with her anyway; and because you get to ask for respect in your relationships.
You need to decide how you want to show up for yourself and for her. Do you need to take a break from her, for your own sake? You are allowed to end friendships that do not offer you anything good and make you feel bad.
You are allowed to end any kind of relationship where you are the only one making the effort to hold it together. And you are allowed to redefine the terms and shape of a friendship if the nature and tone of that friendship change – or if you simply need to.
You cannot control your friend’s emotions, her reactions to this conversation, or the outcome to all conflicts. But you can choose how you contribute to dynamics
If you need to take a break from this friendship, you can do so thoughtfully. You can flag with some (discreet) mutual friends that you have decided to take a step back from this person and ask them to step in and give her a bit more support as needed. You could also change the way your friend group operates, choosing to have more frequent, smaller gatherings where she is not invited, so that you get friend time that is genuinely restorative.
Or if you would like to give her another chance, do so – but do so transparently, and honestly. Ask to meet your friend at a time where you can have some quality time with her and some privacy. Tell her that you love her and that you also need to have a difficult conversation and that you’d like her to listen from a place of empathy and curiosity. Tell her that you are of course sorry for her loss, and have been trying to support her in all the ways you know how. But also explain to her that during this time she has acted in ways that have been upsetting, aggressive and dismissive, that it has been hurting your feelings, and that you need something to change in your dynamic.
Then ask her how she feels. Ask her if she feels like her personality has been different since her loss, if she recognises that she has become angry and negative, and how that feels for her. Ask her how she feels in her relationships and friendships. If she is aware that she is not dealing with her emotions well, or if she feels constantly on edge or under attack, then she may be ready to start addressing this behaviour. You could ask for some specific ways that you could support her, and offer to help her find some bereavement counselling or a therapist.
If she is aware of how she feels and is ready to address that, this could be a real turning point in both your friendship and her emotional process. You can tell her that you’re willing to support her (in whatever ways are sustainable for you – do not overpromise here), but you can also tell her that if she is rude or aggressive you will have step back – and that this isn’t a punishment but simply you respecting your own needs.
If she cries during this conversation, let her cry. Crying is an expression of emotion, not proof of harm being inflicted. She is allowed to have emotions around this conversation. Notice in yourself the ways that you want to control her reactions to avoid your own discomfort.
If she lashes out at you, blames you or otherwise refuses to acknowledge your feelings, tell her that you love her but also need your experience of your friendship to be listened to and accounted for. Tell her that if she ever wants to reopen this conversation you will listen but that she has to choose what she wants. Then let her reflect, and choose.
You cannot control your friend’s emotions, her reactions to this conversation, or the outcome to all conflicts. But you can choose how you contribute to dynamics. You can choose to be empathetic while also showing people that they can’t be rude or aggressive to you. You can choose to support people without simply enabling them. And you can choose what your friendships look like in 2023. Good luck.