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How Do I Get Out Of A Friendship?

Question:

I have a friend who wants to be closer than I want her to be. She is a controlling person and loves to tell me what to do, she’s also selfish and never talks of anything but herself unless it is to tell me what I should be doing in my life. I’ve endured this for quite a few years but I’m tired of it. I have tried to break away gently by not accepting her invitations but she insists on wanting to know why and persists in extending more. She won’t leave me alone. How can I nicely and permanently break this off? I think I will have to have no contact with her as I am not able to keep her at arm’s length. Thank you for you advice.

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Answer:

Breaking up with a friend who wants to continue to be your friend is a very difficult and awkward sort of situation for most people. It is particularly so for many women who are socialized to be nice to others (or at least to give the appearance of being nice). As is the case with any breakup, it is necessary that you stop seeing the other person. For the most part, there is no way to do this without the other person knowing that you are rejecting them.

Many people try to handle the situation through subterfuge, white lies and excuses. They make excuses for why they cannot attend functions they are invited to, or why they are busy. They put off meeting with the person into the indefinite future, master the art of "maybe", and generally become noncommittal. They stop calling the other person. Most of all, they hope that the other person doesn’t really figure out what is happening. If that is too much to ask, at least they hope that the other person will have the graciousness to not force a confrontation. A confrontation is what all of this behavior is designed to avoid.

Avoiding the person until enough time passes that the friendship becomes a thing of the past is a time tested strategy, but it is not one that leaves most people feeling particularly courageous. There is a sort of sneaky quality and lack of straightforwardness to the procedure that most people don’t admire. That people use this strategy so commonly is due more to the fact that they find the idea of rejecting the person in a straightforward manner to be enormously emotionally difficult to do more than that they like feeling like a sneak.

People dislike rejecting other people in a direct, straightforward manner for many reasons. The two that I can think of most readily are that they fear a confrontation, and that they imagine that the other person will feel harmed and they do not wish to inflict a wound. People know that they are still inflicting a wound when they are indirect about their rejection, and they may even know that the wound they are inflicting by being indirect may be even more painful than the wound they would inflict by being direct. However, it is easier to bear the pain of inflicting the indirect wound, because the indirect wound is never witnessed. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, (right?)

In your case, with your friend being so controlling and questioning of your motives, you may not have the luxury of rejecting indirectly. You may be forced into a situation where you must reject directly.

Telling your friend that you no longer wish to see them socially does not have to be a hostile action. It is possible that you have a polite and frank conversation with your friend, stating what it is that you want to do (e.g., not see her anymore), and offer a toned down but still essentially honest version of why this is the case. In your case, you have found this woman to be invasive of your privacy, you have not really understood how to assert yourself to have let her know that some of her attentions are unwanted (even though some have been wanted too), and in your failure to know what to do, you have started to feel resentful of her. It has become uncomfortable being with her now as your resentment has started to overcome your pleasure in her company. In order to preserve your sanity and self-respect, you have had to learn how to become more assertive, and this means that for the time being, you are taking control back over your life by limiting your contact with her.

One of the ironies of life is that there are people out there who will not be offended by such a statement, but they are not the sort of people you’ll tend to want to reject in the first place (because they are already sensitive to other people’s needs and don’t overreach in the first place). There is a reasonable chance that your friend will have no idea that you’ve been feeling put upon, and will interpret your self-protective measure (for that is what it is) as an act of hostility. There isn’t much you can do about that if it should happen, save for maintaining your resolve and your composure. You can apologize for what you’re doing and mean it (because in a real sense, you’ve been acting passively here. If you had understood how to be comfortable in pushing back when she pushes on you all along, the situation likely would not have come to a head like it has), but don’t cave in. Instead, stand your ground as politely as you can, and then take the break (temporary or permanent as you require).

This is an assertiveness situation, so you may very well benefit from reading up on how to act assertively. A good place to start would be this section of our self-help book Psychological Self-Tools. Good luck!

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