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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Friend Is An Emotional Vampire!

Honesty, or polite evasion? Weighing the merits of two approaches to sidestepping a difficult friend.  (coloredgrey/flickr)
Honesty, or polite evasion? Weighing the merits of two approaches to sidestepping a difficult friend. (coloredgrey/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

How does one break up with a friend as an adult? I have a friend who is a really good person, but I feel she's an emotional vampire. She always seems to have a lot of drama, and I am someone who doesn't like a lot of drama in my life. I don't want to be a fair-weather friend, but it seems the only time she really is happy is when the forecast is predicting thunderstorms, if you know what I mean.

It's absolutely exhausting! She also works in an environment where there is constant emotional drama and seems to thrive there. We're two totally different people, and I find her to be more enjoyable in small doses. The issue is that she really wants to be in touch with me a lot. I just don't know how to detach in a gentle way. I really do care for her, and I know she's a great person, but I'm just not that kind of friend. I am a more low-key peace-seeker.

Thank you,

Friendless

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Dear Friendless,

This is a tough one on two levels. First, whatever this woman’s faults, she clearly likes you and wants to be closer. You, on the other hand, want to “detach in a gentle way.” This is going to hurt her feelings, and it’s going to make you feel guilty. Given that you seem like a pretty sensitive soul, I don’t think there’s any way around this basic dilemma.

But it’s even more complicated, because your friend thrives on…drama. And this means there is a significant chance that she will react to the humiliation of being rejected — or at least rebuffed — by bringing that drama into your life. How, then, do you redefine the terms of the friendship without histrionic blowback? Do you say something to her? If so, what? How candid and forthright should you be?

Yikes!

Let me be frank: I’m kind of at a loss.

The idealistic part of me wants to haul out that old saw: Honesty is always the best policy. Explain to this woman, as calmly and compassionately as you can, that you don’t feel the same connection she does, that you don’t want the kind of intense friendship she needs from you right now. The practical part of me knows that this could be an invitation to disaster, in that it may feed the drama jones that your friend (for whatever set of complex reasons) has developed.

Therefore, another part of me — the less evolved and more cautious part — thinks maybe the best play is to slowly extricate yourself by means of avoidance. Don’t respond to all her overtures. Sidestep proposed outings with kind excuses, and hope that she eventually eases off and aims her abundant energies in other directions.

Of these two options, I lean toward the former. And not just because it’s more honest, but because it’s really more kind and effective in the end. I say this as someone who, in my twenties and thirties, engaged in precisely this kind of drama mongering with my male friends. I was troubled and sad, and this made me clingy in a way that was way too intense.

The most important thing is that you grant yourself the right to live as you wish to live.

Some years ago, a friend of mine who was much less intense (more of a peacekeeper, like you) basically told me that I was producing too much drama for his taste. His exact words, as I recall, were: “I like you, man. But you’re kind of a train wreck.” It was hard to hear, but I respected him for telling me how he felt, rather than just avoiding my calls. And I knew, on some level, that he was right. I had brought a lot of my stress into his life, which wasn’t fair to either one of us. I needed to work my troubles out and quit using him as my human stress ball.

The truth that you have to deliver to this woman isn’t as bad as the one I needed to hear. After all, you like her. She’s not a train wreck. She’s just a train that you’d prefer not to ride so often, because of temperamental differences. (Who knows? Maybe this is why she’s drawn to you — because she admires your calm and poise.)

The most important thing is that you grant yourself the right to live as you wish to live. You don’t have to feel bad about not wanting the same kind of friendship as this woman. And you’re certainly not doing her (or yourself) any favors by spending time with her out of pity, or because you fear her reaction to a perceived rejection.

Other readers may have a different take (they usually do!), so you can check the comments section below. But for my money, you’d be wise to level with her, compassionately, and to avoid getting wrapped up in any ensuing drama.

Good luck from your local train wreck,

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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