Ask A Helping Han #12: Dealing with a One-Sided Friendship

Dear Han,

I have a problem with a friend (I'll call her Shelly) that I'm stumped by. I've known Shelly for about four years. We met when we lived in the same city at a mutual interest event in the writing community. At this particular event, I was kind of the welcome committee, making people feel at home, especially newcomers. I'm pretty comfortable in that role, but I think it might have been the  basis of my problems now.

After seeing Shelly at this recurring event a few times, I asked her if she wanted to go to other writing events with me. I knew from my conversations with her that she was depressed; she's up front about her depression, her medications etc., and she's also very involved with a number of 12-step programs such as AA and debtors anonymous. I felt like I kind of liked her, and that it might be cool to go places together.

Although I am friendly, I'm pretty much a loner. I like being by myself most of the time. I only have two friends I'm comfortable enough to just hang out with; put-my-feet-up-on-them-when-we're-on-the-couch kind of pals. I wasn't positive about getting closer with Shelly, but it did work out in its own way and so we continued to attend events together for a few years. About twice a month, I'd let her know about an upcoming reading or other event (she never looked for events herself; she waited for me to get in touch). We'd go out to dinner first, then to the event. I always drove, I always paid, and I mostly kept up the conversation. I would try not to prattle, but I always felt I had to keep things going. I also felt like I was richer and luckier than her. So OK, no big deal…

There were moments when I felt pretty good about her, actually, when I'd look back  later after I dropped her off home. During our dates, however, I mostly felt lassoed to her unhappiness. Most conversations were her saying what she was currently devastated about; this could be minor to monumental, from her leaking roof to her father's  illness. The times I tried to improve a situation — recommending a handyman, taking photos of some items she wanted to sell, and so forth — it just never worked out. There was always a problem, some reason why she was stalled. I learned not to jump in with solutions. There weren't any. Later, when she would refer back to our dates, she'd say how much fun they were and how I really 'got her'. I never felt that when we were together.

Then, I moved to another state. I was somewhat relieved to leave her behind. We'd email a little. I visited the old town twice. The first time was a quick overnight stay at her place. That was a mistake. I asked way in advance, I brought my own futon, bedding, and towels, and I took her out to eat. She didn't move one thing in her cramped and cluttered home for my little bed. She complained for a while, then I tried to sleep. I was very uptight. I left at 5 AM the next morning and ducked down in a park until it was light enough to drive. The next visit back to town, I stayed at a B&B and I only saw her in a group, although I drove her to the group.

Now, Shelly wants to visit. Every time I think of it, my heart hits bottom. I can't imagine her staying in my home for three days and nights. Although I can fill up the days with field trips, what about the long nights? What about trying to get through a film or a conversation or yet another meal? And then she will be there, right there, the next morning. And I'll have to start it all over again. One part of me says to tough it out; she is depressed and she can't help it and saying no might throw her into a deeper hole. She seems to value and enjoy our friendship, am I that wrong? Another part of me says having her visit totally erases me; I'll have to struggle through interminable days, and even though I'm not as depressed as her, I have plenty of anxiety and bad feelings to sink up my own boat.

Oh Han, What do you suggest?


Dread Head

Dear Dread Head,

This sounds like it has been a fairly rough friendship for you. Based on your narrative, you sound like the sort of person who tends to forget to put on their own mask first, figuratively speaking. I’ve spent a lot of my life being one of those people, and I was raised by one, so I totally get it. However, I have good news: you are, in fact, allowed to look out for your own needs before worrying about anyone else’s!

The way I see it, you have two options here: the path of less resistance, and the nuclear option. Which one you choose to use is entirely dependent on your comfort level, and I don’t think that either one is objectively “better.” The question you have to ask yourself is this: “Do I still want to be Shelly’s friend?”

If the answer is yes, then what you need is a way to do that without taking on so much of her emotional baggage and neediness that you can’t handle your own shit. I think the way to do this with regards to her potential visit is just to be clear with her about what you’re open to before she makes any plans. I would suggest a script such as this (including the limits I’m setting here, although feel free to make them stricter if you need to): “Hi Shelly, I’d love to see you if you’re going to be in town! Let me know if you need help finding a hotel. I won’t be able to spend the whole weekend with you, but I’d love to get together for dinner and drinks one night!” Set the rules yourself. If she says she thought she’d stay with you, just tell her “I’m sorry, that won’t work for me, but like I said, I’d love to take you out for dinner one night!” Stick to your guns. If her feelings are hurt, so be it--better to hurt her feelings than suffer through three interminable days where you don’t enjoy her company even a little bit. You’re not beholden to her. Do what you need to do!

If, however, the answer is NO, you do not want to stay friends with her, that’s a whole different ball game. It is, though, a ball game that you are NOT AT ALL alone in. For reference, please see the “African violets” tag on Captain Awkward’s website. The Captain gives a lot of great advice on friend breakups, and what it all boils down to is this: it is probably going to take a conversation, and it’s not going to be easy. You will probably have to tell Shelly outright that you are not interested in maintaining this friendship. It is not going to feel good to say, and it is not going to feel good to hear. Ultimately, though, you do not owe anything to Shelly but to end the friendship as kindly as you can. You are not her only support system; you note that she is on medications (which implies that she has a psychiatrist) and that she is a member of several support groups. She does not need you to manage her depression; she is managing it herself. Relieve yourself of the responsibility of providing her with a venue to vent; this is not your problem.

Whichever way you choose to go, remember: you are allowed to want things for yourself. Sometimes, those things are not going to align with what other people want from you. Those people may end up upset with you because of this. THAT IS OKAY. Someone being upset with you does not make you a bad person.

Best of luck!

With love,


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