(Originally Published at BlogHer on April 29, 2016)
“Do you want one of the strawberries?” she asked to me with a wide, friendly smile and bright eyes.
“They’re really delicious. Here, have one,” she offered.
“No, no, I’m OK. But thank you,” I replied.
She had one of the most exhilarating personalities of anyone I had ever met. She made you feel as the most important person in the world.
At first, she invited you to tag along to all of her events, insisting on the host’s invitation being extended to you. At first, she told you her deepest secrets. At first, she felt like your best friend. You two were seen at every event together. Some would joke that you were, “chained at the hip.” “Like two peas in a pod,” they would say with a smile.
The speed of your friendship progressed much faster than you had anticipated – but you let her take the lead and dictate the rules of the friendship. You were still learning about yourself, still figuring out how to be an adult. And her confidence in every decision she made had you feeling safe and protected.
But then things started changing. You took a step back from this intoxicating relationship, and just observed. You didn’t engage, you just observed. Notice how she glossed over mistakes she had made, but magnified identical mistakes others made towards her.
Notice how she would insist that someone was out to get her, when no one really was. Notice how she would cower at the face of conflict, yet react with explosive rage at a trivial slight.
I can’t quite put my finger on my where “rock bottom” was in our friendship, it might have been one of the many times she suggested I divorce my husband, because we had an argument. It might have been the time she announced that she was going to try and go for a job I had said I was interested in and had been working towards for months. Or maybe it was the time she managed to make herself the center of attention at a friend’s funeral.
But most likely it was the time, when during a busy lunch hour, she screamed at me in a tone and volume that had me cowering underneath her. Tucking my chin into my shoulder, trying to shield myself from her rage, she screamed, “How dare you suggest that I go back to my abusive husband? Is that what you want me to do Jenn? Go back to my sexually, psychologically and physically abusive husband? HUH? IS IT?!!” (full disclosure: Her ex is none of those adjectives. None.)
“No…no….no, it, it, it’s not that. I, I, I just…” I muttered, incapable of forming a complete sentence.
Everyone around us was in a stunned silence, many gazing in our direction. I was humiliated and scared. I couldn’t believe she would do that to me and yet I kept the friendship going for six more years. I would do my best to build her up through her hatred of her ex moving on, through the day-after-day of some devastating situation that would always present itself to her. Every time I tried to make her happy, but I couldn't make that happiness last.
I should have seen the signs - they were always present. Even in the sociology and psychology courses I took in college, one would assume I would have noticed the signs: the possessiveness, the overly demanding needs, the emotional drain.
Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends states that “A friendship is between two peers.” We were peers at one point, but could it be that something shifted and we no longer were? Certainly, there are friendships that exist among dissimilar individuals? But is the relationship mutually beneficial if the two are no longer so analogous?
Charles Figley, PhD, Professor and Director of the Psychological Stress Research Program at Florida State University states that in order to extricate yourself from the toxic relationship you first must take responsibility. “It's a pleaser personality -- you want people to like you, you want to get along, and it's hard to say no. But you can pay the price in one way by having toxic friends." I am a classic example of a people pleaser, pushing my needs aside to make someone else happy.
So I did what I needed to do – I took responsibility for my part in this friendship. And when an opportunity presented itself for me to withdraw, I slowly slipped away. I tried limiting my interaction with her, but that only made her anger grow. And when I put my spouse before her, in a move that furthered her vitriol, she announced to her immediate world that, “during the tough times in life, you get to see the true colors of your friends.” It would have been easier had she just told me that I was being a bad friend. When she attempted to play games through e-mail, social media, and mutual friends, I didn’t play along. I kept silent. I melted into the background, hoping that she would move on.
I ghosted the friendship, because I didn’t see any other way out.
And the thing is, she’s not a bad person. She is a kind soul and I feel empathy for her. Underneath that thick layer of self-indulgent indignation lies a hurt little girl. Someone who needs validation. Someone who needs the spotlight that I can’t give her. I can’t keep reserving that spotlight just for her. I had been alienating my friends, my family, and my spouse for too many years, all because she needed me.
I don’t regret getting out of the friendship. I don’t regret the peace I now feel every day knowing I don’t have to be subjected to another tantrum . I don’t regret the happiness I enjoy without her. I don’t regret how my marriage has blossomed now that she is no longer the center of my universe.
Yet, I feel guilt. Guilt that I couldn’t help her. Guilt that I am not there to sooth another heart break and another loss. Guilt that I just can’t do anything about her need for attention and affirmation. Guilt that I just can’t be a good enough friend for her.
It’s just I can’t….and I don’t want to.