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I Don't Have Any Idea What To Say

Question:

Three years ago, I started a new teaching job. Another girl, I’ll call Sue, also started the same time I did. Due to some building construction during the summer, Sue’s and my teaching materials were piled in the same storage area and we quickly became friends due to constantly being in contact and trying to sort out her materials from the things that should go in my classroom. I found out Sue was single and had just moved into the area so I invited her to share supper with my husband and our two boys, ages 6 and 8. As the year went on, Sue spent more time with us…coming over to watch a movie on a Friday night, going on picnics with us, etc. We even invited her to go camping with us one weekend. We all seemed to get along fine. One evening Sue called and asked me to come to her apartment because she was having problems with her shower. Since we live in a very rural area and I knew there were no repairmen she could call, I was happy to help out and immediately went over to help (she lived about 5 miles away.) After we got the problem figured out she tried to get me to stay longer but I declined and went back home. Within the next few weeks, she was calling 3-4 times each week with some problem that she needed help with…a stuck window, her car wouldn’t start, etc. Each time I went to her aid and finally figured out that she was just lonely and wanted some company. Eventually, it started to become a problem and my husband asked me not to spend so much time with her. He was feeling a bit neglected (rightfully so!) and wanted to make sure that I spent more time with him and our boys. I told Sue that I couldn’t come over all the time because I needed to be home. She got very upset and told me that I didn’t want to be her friend. (This wasn’t true at all, but she wouldn’t believe me.) At the end of the school year, she moved (without saying goodbye) and I didn’t see her again until last week when I saw her at the school where I now substitute teach. Due to some health problems, I had to quit teaching full time and now work as a substitute teacher. I found out, when I was filling in for a 2nd grade teacher, that Sue was back in this same school now teaching 6th grade. I don’t want anything to do with her and don’t want to say anything that will make her think that I want to be friends. However, I don’t have any idea what to say to her should I meet her in the hall or in the teacher’s lounge or in some other location in the building. Do you have any suggestions?

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Answer:

Sue is probably a fairly needy person who views relationships in fairly black and white, either/or sorts of ways. While perfectly legitimate and reasonable, the level of friendship that you were prepared to offer her during her time of need fell into a middle or “gray” area she could not easily make sense of or accept. It would appear that she solved the dilemma of how to understand your offer by interpreting it as a hurtful rejection (“If you don’t give me all I want, It must mean that you don’t want to give me anything”). By rejecting you first, she may have tried to transform that hurt into something that felt less vulnerable (anger). All of this was Sue’s problem and not yours.

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p> What you might say to her should she approach you will have to depend on how you feel about what happened. If you’re upset about being mistreated by her, I don’t think you owe her anything more than politeness, “I’m truly sorry, but I feel burned by what happened, and I’m not interested in spending further time with you”. On the other hand, if you have compassion for a woman who was (is?) having some difficulty making her way in the world, you can offer her the same limited attention you did before, making clear what you can and cannot do for her, “I like you, Sue, but my first loyalty is to my family. If we’re to be friends, you will have to appreciate and accept that, because otherwise I will feel disrespected and manipulated and I won’t want to spend time with you”. If she gets upset about what you will not do for her again it is (again) her problem, and not yours.

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