'My Close Friend Is Being Selfish!'
Respecting your own idiosyncratic needs makes intimate friendships so much easier.
East River from the Shelton (1926) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I need help navigating a bit of a rough patch in a close friendship. My friend "Nadia" and I are both women in our early 30s who bonded closely after college. Nadia is one of my best friends and truly a gem of a human. She is smart, hilarious and a terrific listener, whether I'm venting or gushing. At the beginning of our friendship, she really showed up for me. I have complete trust that she would be there for me if I ever needed support in a dark time. A few months ago, she moved back to the city where I live, which is great! Except I find myself getting annoyed with her and acting flinchy and impatient as a result.
Sometimes I have an unfortunate tendency to keep an accounting of grievances levied against people in my life. Generally I'm pretty easy going and tolerant of my loved ones' more difficult qualities — I've been told so, even. But I also have the ability to build a case against someone like a prosecutor, and I wonder if I tend to focus on one "villain" at a time as a sort of scapegoat or outlet for my pettiness that I otherwise keep under control. That's all to say that I currently have a running list of ways that Nadia has recently slighted me and I'm unsure which gripes are valid and which are the products of my overzealous inner prosecutor. I summarize her "crimes" below:
When she first met my boyfriend about nine months ago, she was pretty cold and judgmental about his educational background.
She’s in a quasi-relationship with a guy and most of our conversations revolve around dissecting his actions. I miss talking about stuff other than men.
She asks for help with so many things. I took time out of my work day to march through the frigid cold to visit apartments for her before she moved here. She borrows things and doesn’t return them quickly. She wants help with extremely taxing home projects. I'm sure she says thank you most of the time, but I feel under appreciated (and guilty for feeling that way).
Every time we go out, she asks me to pick the restaurant because she's "new" in town and wants to know the hot places to go. She has lived in this city before. I resent having to research and select restaurants when she is the one suggesting we hang out.
None of these issues are that big alone, and obviously the answer is to respectfully talk to Nadia about them. But a lot of my grievances are quite petty and probably not worth discussing. I feel like raising several issues at once would come across as an aggressive onslaught, and I'm not sure it would solve the underlying conflict causing my irritation with Nadia.
You write a lot about attachment styles and I think Nadia and I clash in that regard. I come from a household that prioritized self-reliance and diminished feelings. I often had to accommodate my special needs brother, which I was happy to do, and to adjust to the whims of loving but self-centered parents. With this background, I have trouble identifying and vocalizing my needs when they don't seem crucial enough to raise. Instead, I let my concerns fester unsaid until I feel squirmy and crave distance from the person in question. Classic avoidant attachment stuff.
Nadia leans more toward anxious attachment. She was raised by loving, overbearing parents who could be simultaneously coddling and highly critical. I think her move back to our city coincided with a time where she feels vulnerable in her romantic life, and that her instinct is to seek special attention and care — a sense of being babied. But she really hasn't asked for much, and she has her own strong social network here, so it's not like we are hanging out all the time and I just need some space. It's like I detect a neediness in her that triggers my social allergy. I have a sense that she expects more fanfare and indulgence from her friends than she's receiving, and I resent feeling like I let her down. I also don't know how much I'm projecting due to a childhood that taught me that asking for help or special attention is weak and wrong.
With all of those conflicting feelings swirling in the ether, my friendship with Nadia has been a bit tense lately, and it finally came to a head. Through a series of unfortunate events, Nadia was very late to a reservation at a restaurant I chose at her request. Her father had changed their family plan and her text messaging was malfunctioning, and she overestimated the reliability of our public transit, which she had intended to deliver her only fashionably late (but still late!). When she got to the restaurant and could again send and receive texts via wifi, she told us to come there rather than agreeing to meet us as the bar where we were waiting to reconsider dinner plans, as we suggested in an earlier text. The restaurant sat her but was scheduled to close in 15 minutes. Our other friend and I walked to the restaurant but I refused to eat there since the staff was clearly trying to close up. I criticized her for being late. She said I was being snippy and that I "always get like that." She said something about me wanting to hang out less. I said something about not wanting to always plan the hang out. We discovered the depth of her problem receiving text messages, which explained some of the miscommunication, and we apologized and made up. We had a fine dinner with our friend at another restaurant and split a cab back to our neighborhood. Things are officially fine between us, and I absolutely still love her and her company. This is not a friendship breaking issue.
But I would love your help navigating how to talk about the lingering conflict in a way that isn't just an accusatory airing of grievances. It's about a deeper gut level reaction I'm having to her behavior, which on the whole, has been objectively fine. I don't really know what to say and what to ask for. Maybe I just need to work on changing my perspective without burdening her?
Also, Nadia is angling to plan a group trip abroad for her birthday in several months. At the conciliatory dinner described above, I was like, "So fun, let’s totally do that!" We have had great trips together in the past, including with the proposed friend group. But my boyfriend isn't so keen on the trip and I prioritize traveling with him that time of year since his work makes taking vacation difficult in other seasons. So now I have to concretely decline the vacation request and abstractly address the underlying tension in our friendship and I'm feeling very flinchy about it all. Can you demystify this bit of friendship maintenance?
P.S. I loved Foreverland! Your honest account of the ebb and flow of your marriage gives me confidence that all my relationships, including friendships, can weather rough patches.
You could be writing about my lifelong friend in this letter. Our dynamic is very similar: She’s incredibly smart, funny, and she’s one of the most loyal and devoted friends I have. That’s something I couldn’t recognize for years because I share some of your self-reliant, avoidant traits. I was raised in a household where being independent and capable was emphasized and feelings were diminished, just like you were. And my friend was embraced warmly and then criticized as a child just like Nadia was. I would characterize both of our childhoods as confusing and inconsistent. We were completely charmed by each other and formed such a strong bond the second we met. And we clashed from the start, but we were both committed to staying friends. That said, I always held her at arm’s length and she often wanted more or nothing at all.
We made it through decades of conflict, somehow! It’s truly a miracle that we’re still friends. So I’m going to offer my perspective through that lens. Because the question isn’t whether or not to remain friends with Nadia. The question is HOW to remain friends with Nadia.
Trying to stay close to a very good friend is a lot like trying to stay married. People will tell you, “Friendships shouldn’t be that difficult!” And I agree, mostly. Because most friendships should not be that difficult. Most friendships are much more casual than what we’re describing here. This friendship you’re describing with Nadia is very intimate, which is why it kicks up so many of your respective attachment issues. And let’s just remind ourselves: WHEN YOU HAVE A REAL, INTIMATE, COMMITTED RELATIONSHIP WITH SOMEONE, THAT’S WHEN YOUR DEEPEST ISSUES ARISE.
You will project. You will distance yourself. You will sometimes land in a terrible state of anger or resentment or sadness and you’ll look at your friend and think SHE’S MANIPULATIVE, SHE’S ABUSIVE, SHE’S GASLIGHTING ME, SHE’S INSENSITIVE, SHE’S SELF-CENTERED AND AWFUL.
The story about moving restaurants: This is my friend in a nutshell. You planned everything carefully and now the whole plan is thrown over for a shitty plan. My friend would not have the same interpretation of your story, though. She’d say, “Things went haywire, these were special circumstances. Nadia needed help! And if they seat you at a restaurant, then they’re prepared to serve you! It’s their responsibility to say no!” (My friend has also been skeptical about my boyfriends’ educations, borrowed things and not returned them, asked for taxing help with home projects. I mean my friend is basically Nadia? I say this with love! She’s the best! She loves being babied! It’s funny now that I get it. More on that later.)
If I were in that situation at the restaurant that’s about to close, I might say to my own friend “Look, I don’t want to put these servers out, and eat my meal with a clock ticking down in my head.” That might just sound like nonsense to my friend, because she could easily eat without noticing or worrying about the staff. I’d argue that’s because she’s never waited tables. She’d argue that I’m being overly servile and neurotic.
See how messy it can get? But all that’s happening here is that we’re two different people with very different ideas about how to move through the world. You can use words like “entitled” for her and “uptight” for me, but is that even helpful?
And all we’re talking about so far is eating at a restaurant! See how impossible?
My friend and I got snagged on small things all the fucking time. And the small things would lead to bigger things, bad conversations where we both lost our tempers and felt gaslit. I’d probably say that she was the one losing her temper, and she’d say the same for me. The only thing you need to know is that we would both get emotional and tense and then move into a position of blaming each other. “I don’t have other friendships that blow up like this!” we’d tell each other. “So YOU must be the problem!”
The more we’d dig for a way to get along, the more we’d argue and find fault not just with each other’s behaviors but also with the ways we stigmatized each other’s behaviors and choices. Because she’s so smart and funny, just like my parents, her judgments were harder to shake off. Her harsh words were unforgettable! I would carry them around. And I was insecure so I needed PROOF sometimes that the problem was her. My confidence depended on it!
This is what I think, looking back: It’s not that complicated, actually. We were two very different people who wanted very different things. That’s all.
The same is true for you and Nadia. You could say that you give too much and she takes too much. But I don’t think that’s your intention or her intention. I doubt you behave the same ways with other people, either. You give too much to Nadia, specifically. She takes too much from you, specifically. You believe in being capable and generous and doing whatever you can for someone else if you’re able. That’s love to you. These are your values. She believes that love is expressed through care for another person who can’t quite manage on their own. The ultimate feeling of love, for her, is being babied. She tries to give back, but she just doesn’t value caring for quite as much as being cared for. She’s in love with being babied. She craves it because she never felt truly loved and safe as a child.
See how you’re a perfect love match, and you’re also easily described as two people in a classic abusive relationship? It’s all in the storytelling.
I would argue that as long as you know you want this friendship, and you know you would be devastated if you lost it, and you feel in your heart that Nadia is a good person but is simply careless and helpless at times, then there’s no reason to tell sad or clinical stories about this relationship.
So the answer is simple: You have to state your needs more clearly, assert stronger boundaries, learn to say no early and often, and also learn to tell her how much you love and enjoy her company often. You have to behave like someone who’s secure and confident and won’t surrender what she knows are her true needs under duress.
I understand that this is hard for you. But remember: Standing up for yourself and gently asserting what you need (and what you won’t give!) WILL MAKE YOU LESS SNIPPY!
Let me be clear, though. Asserting your needs and drawing clear boundaries are not the same things as surrendering to a world of casual friendships, where no one shows up for each other. You can say no and still acknowledge and also demonstrate how deeply felt your bond is. In fact, asserting your boundaries gives you the freedom to have a true, deep, loving friendship with Nadia.
Let’s take her idea of a trip abroad, and pretend for a moment that you can go but you’re afraid of having to deal with Nadia in close quarters for so long. The trip might sound fun, but it also might sound like hell, because of the way Nadia moves through the world. So the first order of business is to decide how you feel about the trip WITHOUT THINKING THROUGH HOW NADIA WILL FEEL. This is what secure functioning people do. Because your guilt about Nadia is not informative or helpful. When you tell your boyfriend things like “Oh god it’ll be terrible, but if I say no, Nadia will feel like I’m being distant and withholding…” you’re indulging in the chaos of insecure attachment, a world of low self-esteem and zero boundaries.
All you need to decide is this: Do I want to go on this trip, knowing what I know? And if I want to find a way to go, how will I manage my needs? What will I agree to do and not do?
In your case, you might want to go, but you now realize that your boyfriend can only travel around the same time. So you have to tell Nadia that, without fanfare. If you want to travel some other time with Nadia, express that. If you’re not sure, don’t mention it.
I have friends I’d drive across the country with, in a rusted out old van. I have other friends who I wouldn’t run to the grocery store with unless I was driving and we had a list agreed upon before we left the house. There are situations I can go with the flow and other situations where I know I’ll be at my worst if I try to be chill and play along.
The point is, I know what I need to feel good and have fun, and sometimes I have to assert my needs. I used to call them “my weird needs” or “my irrational needs” but that was before I noticed something important:
EVERYONE HAS NEEDS.
Everyone’s needs are weird or irrational at some level. If your needs are right in line with the vast majority of the most average human’s needs, excellent! That must be nice! But there’s no real difference between a person who wants a hamburger exactly the way McDonald’s makes it and a person who wants a bun with some tiny cubes of onion on it and nothing else. One need is not less rational than another.
You can throw down the gauntlet with Nadia and have an open discussion about the past. Personally, I don’t recommend that, because your friendship isn’t functioning healthily yet. The conflicts occurring now aren’t representative of how your relationship will function once you start asserting clear boundaries. Right now you’re echoing your childhood chaos together. You have a very precious and intimate relationship that’s warping your abilities to show up and be good to each other.
Your restaurant example illustrates many opportunities for growth and reinforced boundaries, but the changes can be approached casually over text. The next time you agree to have dinner together, ask Nadia where she wants to go. When she says she doesn’t know, tell her you don’t have time to look but you’re happy with anything (if you are). If she shows up and wants you to switch restaurants, tell her she should come to you instead. If she insists on eating at a place that’s about to close, say to her, “If I eat here, I won’t enjoy myself or relax. That’s just how I am.”
I guess I’d like to add that this will feel difficult at first. Saying no to the trip abroad will also be a challenge. Saying yes would be hard, too. If I had to travel with my friend tomorrow, I think I’d probably say to her directly, “We’re going to have to talk through a few different scenarios and how we’ll handle them, because I have needs and preferences that probably don’t match yours.”
Do you see how a remark like that doesn’t wander into emotional territory or involve blame at all? Even when Nadia steps on your toes without noticing, I want you to understand that taking on big-picture emotional differences isn’t really necessary. You can say, “Look, we’re just different, and that’s fine,” over and over again – and you should! You can love someone like crazy, even though they’re a cow and you’re a frog. The frog needs things the cow doesn’t, but the frog admires the cow’s cow qualities so very much. “LOOK AT YOUR ENORMOUS MOUTH FULL OF BIG SQUARE TEETH! MARVELOUS!” the frog coos.
As an avoidant, you won’t be able to feel your love for your friend Nadia until you recognize that she’s not careless or unfair or mean, she’s just a cow. She’s learned to be a cow because it took being a cow to survive her childhood. Likewise, you can realize that your froggy needs aren’t rigid or weird or withholding. You had to be a frog to navigate the swamp of your childhood. Now you’re a frog. What are you gonna do?
I like that you mention my book because it’s all about these kinds of problems: Here I am at my wedding, feeling like a goddamn frog. What do I do? It’s easy to hate yourself, every step of the way, when you realize that you’ve evolved slowly into a shape and form that JUST DOESN’T FIT WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD. Sometimes that looks all wrong to other people — you look aggressive and confused and superior and inferior, all in one. In my book, I want to look that way. That’s the whole goddamn point! You arrive in these taxing places and YOU ARE NOT LIKABLE. YOU ARE CONFUSED. YOU FEEL CONFLICTED. YOU HATE YOURSELF AND YOU ALSO HATE EVERYONE ELSE. When you don’t forgive yourself for being a frog and don’t believe that frogs have rights, guess what? You’re a mess!
You sometimes get mad at cows, when you’re a frog. You sometimes think there must being something wrong with a cow! But once you decide it’s okay to be a frog, guess what? You recognize your STRONG LOVE FOR A GOOD COW.
Let’s remember that this is what friendships and partnerships and marriages are all about: FEELING STRONG LOVE FOR OTHERS. Not just loving people, but FEEEEEEEELING IT. Adoring a cow! Worshiping an excellent pig! Delighting in the weird quirks of a snake!
And the central irony of admitting what you are is this: You do start to change into something else once you do it! When I was writing my very bewildered (and to some, unlikable!) chapters of my book, I thought, “Whoa, I’ve grown up since then!” I have become a person with more love to give, because I’ve learned to forgive myself and to ask for what I need. I can give much more to all kinds of interesting people with extremely strong personalities — A value of mine! Giving to others generously! — because I give a lot to myself. I recognize that we all have needs, and no needs are “more normal” than others. We’re all freaks and mutants with very specific desires and requirements. We’re all strange and picky and rigid in our own unique ways.
It's time for you to learn to take care of yourself, Snippy. That’s the real message of this reply, which I SWORE TO MYSELF WOULD BE VERY SHORT. Hahaha, what can I tell you? I’m a longwinded frog. It’s time for you, another longwinded frog, to learn to care of yourself, so you can align yourself with your values, so you can FEEL your love in every cell of your body for a change, so you can celebrate a cow, and maybe even vacation with a cow, like you did in the good old days!
I know it’s a lot. But your habit of building a case against a villain (I used to do that, too) will die off once you stop secretly building a case against yourself, setting your needs aside repeatedly while resenting the villain du jour for it. It’s time for you to ask for what you want. Say what you need. Don’t stigmatize other people’s needs or desires. Learn to show up and assert your own.
You can say “Oh that’s pushy!” Or “That’s not how the world is, no one acts that way!” I hear you. But some people do behave this way, respectfully, and when you see it out in the world, it just looks mature and stable. Moreover, in intimate relationships, that is how it works. When your deepest emotions are involved, more communication and thoughtfulness are demanded of you. If your chaotic childhood shows up in the middle of a dinner, guess what? That means you have to take better care of yourself, and make some adjustments for a frog who feels unsafe, who can’t love freely under those conditions.
It’s not selfish. The goal is to love with more passion. The goal is to spend time together when you’re *both* excited to talk about a lot of things. That feeling will come back, once you assert yourself and care for yourself. It’s not about wrong and right. It’s about frog and cow, enjoying each other for exactly who they are.
Tell me about your cow friend or frog husband or snake sister in the comments. Thank you for reading and supporting Ask Polly!