I’m part of a group of friends that have known each other for many years. I treasure this group and want to be friends for a long time to come. Unfortunately, conflicts have been coming up here and there over the last couple of years, it seems to be escalating, and I’m at a loss as to how to make things better.
The problems mostly revolve around me and one of the other women in the group, “Jessica.”
Jessica and I are very different people. She’s an only child who, at age 40, still lives with her parents. Her mother does all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, even buys all her clothes for her. She was very sheltered growing up, attended religious all-girls schools, including college. She is very girly. I’m also 40 and single, one of five children (3 girls, 2 boys), went to public schools, and haven’t lived at home since I was 18. I’m non-religious and not girly at all.
A few years ago Jessica decided that she wanted to be closer friends with me. She’s not the kind of person I’d seek out as a friend, but I figured why not? We’d occasionally get together and chat or talk on the phone, but every time we’d talk I’d come away wishing I knew less about her. It’s not that she shares things that are too personal; it’s that find her immature, self-righteous and painfully insecure. It’s gotten to the point that every interaction involves a miscommunication, which turns into needless drama. I want to go back to just being acquaintances, but any attempt I make to do that is extremely upsetting for her. She interprets entirely normal, innocent behaviors as a rejection of her. And it’s happening much too often.
Here’s a recent example:
The group was going on a 3-day ski trip. Jessica found and reserved the condo, I said thank you and please let me know how I can help out. She responded with an email about cooking food while we’re on vacation. She opened by saying that she’d been juice fasting for several weeks, so she’d put together a menu of all the things she’d been craving. Attached was a 3-page doc of links to very involved, expensive, time-consuming recipes. The dinners were three-course meals. It would have required many hours of work every day of the trip. To her credit, she ended by saying she was open to my menu suggestions as well. (It’s worth mentioning here that I am a mediocre cook at best, but Jess has decided I am a great cook. I have told her several times it was my ex who made all the good food, but that information never sticks.)
Well, there was no way I was going do all that. Knowing it would not be well-received, I thought long and hard before writing a light-hearted, respectful reply, saying that it was a bit more than I was expecting, and that I wanted to just relax and have fun on the trip. I offered to make one of the dinners she requested (but only two of the three courses) and suggested we could ask everyone who was going to take on a meal. She replied that that was a good idea and that she had been “assumptive.” I hoped that would be the end of it, but it was not.
Jessica then got another woman in the group, “Terry,” to do it. Terry quite literally doesn’t cook at all, but she’s incredibly nice and finds it impossible to say no to anyone. It’s also worth mentioning that she was bringing her two small children on the trip. Jessica told her that she was terribly hurt that I’d said no, and believes I only refused because she was the one who asked.
Terry’s take on things is that Jessica was trying to bond with me, but because she’s so nervous and insecure, she makes mistakes. Terry thinks it’s perfectly okay that Jess didn’t ask if I actually wanted to do the cooking. She thinks Jess probably would have helped me cook (even though Jess does not cook and panics when she’s in the kitchen), and that her food cravings made her forget to ask what other people might want to eat. She also assumed I would enjoy spending the weekend cooking for everyone.
As these conflicts between me and Jess have started to add up, a pattern is emerging. The group’s thinking seems to be that because Jessica is so easily hurt, while I seem just annoyed and not so vulnerable, I should be the one to fix things. I have no idea what to do. I’ve tried talking to Jess about it, and it sort of helps briefly, but she immediately expects to be really close friends, and I just don’t enjoy her company. Even worse, because everyone else is so forgiving of Jess’s behavior, I’m starting to seem like the problem. I’m hoping there’s a way to set everything right and put an end to the needless drama. We all used to get along so beautifully. This group is like a second family to me, but they are as sick of the drama as I am. What should I do?
There’s no doubt at all that Jessica lives in a fantasy world of her own making, with assistance from her supportive, fantasy-enabling Mommy. When you offer to help, in passing, and she responds by sending you a three-page menu of elaborate and difficult recipes custom-designed to suit her cravings? That’s obviously a test to see if you will give her the same unconditional love (in the form of hard labor) that her Mommy does. Recognizing that this is absurd and more than a little indicative of unstable emotional health just means that you are a thinking person with brains stuffed into your head and eyes screwed into your face.
The trouble begins with your mouth. Your explainy, guilty mouth does too much guilty explaining, just when it needs to shut up and step away. You feel at once repelled by Jessica and obligated to be her buddy and be a team player and go with the flow. So you explained that her menu “was a bit more than I was expecting.” How did the lady in a sanitized bubble take that? She took it as “YOU are a bit more than I was expecting.” Because she’s ALWAYS a bit more than anyone is expecting, every day of her anxious, needy, preemptively angry, test-administering hothouse-flower life.
Please note: Her mother is the real criminal in this picture, for wanting to keep her child forever and ever in her smothering, laundry-doing clutches, at the expense of that child’s maturity and sanity. If Jessica were cooking and cleaning at age 40 while her mother relaxed? Great. Instead, though, Jessica is this enervated, weak thing with a big sad mouth that laments that no one will ever quite deliver all that she needs. It’s all very Grey Gardens, which is sad but also transfixing and hilarious and awful and delicious.
So how did you wander into her crosshairs? You didn’t just say “Aw, what the fuck, why not befriend Little Edie? What could possibly go wrong?” No. A little piece of you is guilt-driven and wants to save someone. You were a little horrified by Jessica’s malformed personality, but she made you feel sort of healthy and thriving by comparison. She was entertaining, in her total delusional state. She puts so much emotional and verbal energy into constructing fantasylands in her head, whether via juice fast, elaborate menu she herself doesn’t want to cook, emerging persecution complex, what have you.
That three-page menu, by the way, reminds me of a former roommate of mine who, when we were moving to a new apartment, packed all of her stuff in giant boxes, even though she herself was tiny. Then she carried a single lamp to the moving van and took a smoke break on the curb. After moving giant boxes and furniture all day, my other roommate asked her to put her arms around one of her boxes; they didn’t reach all the way around. My littler roommate had a sense of humor about it, but there was also a kind of “So what?” attitude, a sense of entitlement, as if whatever other people could be suckered into doing for her was just fine. (Please note: This is an adaptive strategy and maybe how people end up stinking rich? Or also how they end up losing all their money? Fuck me, I don’t know.)
That Little Edie angry charm, that “So fucking what?” thing, that “Here’s what my heart desires and YOU are going to give it to me, or else”? It’s inexplicably seductive. Maybe it’s only seductive to those of us who were raised by narcissists, or who just have a real taste for narcissists, or who ARE narcissists. But let’s be fair, who maintains a lively and dynamic personality well into old age, but a borderline narcissist? Who, instead of telling you about their fucking kids or their gardens or their doggies, has sharp and impossibly explosive shit to say? Say what you will about Alec Baldwin; to me he represents the good and the bad of the Hollywood narcissists. He hangs around comedians and comedy writers, who absolutely say atrocious things in each other’s company to get a laugh, and so bad shit is on the tip of the man’s tongue, and he has a giant ego, and he feels persecuted. I have some sympathy for that variety of narcissistic asshole, which is still a world apart from Mel Gibson. His beloved show went off the air and everyone turned on him. He actually wants us to understand this; he’s saying I love you and I need you and fuck you to the public, in one fell swoop.
So Bubble Jessica and Little Edie and Alec Baldwin, they’re these glorious, intense, horrible, self-righteous, salty-sweet, anger-filled nuggets of cronutty goodness. Baldwin’s brilliance as an actor, serious and comedic, is all wrapped up in his flaws. You know how I always recommend that people love and accept their flaws as much as their finest qualities, because they’re inextricably linked? Baldwin struggles because he’s a loudmouth, and he’s smug, and he’s insecure, and he’s angry, and HE WANTS TO EXPLAIN, and these things are tied to his genius as an actor. He feels persecuted and misunderstood because he really is a nice guy underneath all of the shit, he has love love love to give, and he’s hurt. But, like most bright, shiny narcissistic butterbombs of hatred and desire, he’s also a lot of other things. What should he do? Should he put his glorious light under a bushel? No. He should cut push-button words out of his vocabulary, he should resolve to never malign another person, ever, because it’s in poor taste (particularly when you’ve never met them? Ahem?), and he should STOP EXPLAINING.
And yet, Baldwin’s explaining is still kind of faintly lovable. He feels guilty, and angry. He’s all mixed up. That’s why he puts crazy words on the page, god love him. You are also feeling guilty and angry and you’re putting too many words on the page, in emails and in conversations with others in the group. You’re trying to come across as reasonable and benign, but you sound a little harsh. That’s you. You’re not like bunny rabbit Jessica, whose voice sounds like a Keane painting.
Know this, though: These friends of yours love Jessica. She’s entertaining, so they’ve decided to accept her for who she is. They’re not spending extra time with her one-on-one (like you, dude!). They don’t know or basically choose not to see the crazy therein. When they’re asked to prepare foods, they simply say NO. Or they say YES, like Terry, because Terry likes to do other peoples’ bidding. Fine. But they’re not asking each other what they think of her or you, or what her or you said about this or that (like you are, dude!). This is how groups stay together. Everyone agrees not to notice.
You found out from Terry that Jessica was hurt by your refusal to make the foods. Why did you find that out? Did Terry offer that, and then say that Jessica was blameless? If so, she’s stirring up shit. But I don’t think that’s how it went down. I think you’re talking too much. YOU ARE CAUSING DRAMA. You need to accept that. Yes, I know you don’t believe this. I suffer from this myself, this notion that I can talk (politely, carefully) or seek information and NOT be stirring up shit. NOT POSSIBLE.
And you’re going to get blamed for ALL of it, because all Jessica is saying is that she’s hurt. Ooo, that Jessica! She’s a wise one. Even though she’s secretly self-righteous and nuttier than squirrel shit, she puts a pretty goddamn savvy face on the crazy for your crowd. But you’re bad at that. You sound angry and harsh and yet YOU WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD. And let me tell you what, that is a tough fucking row to hoe, my friend.
Why do you want to be understood? Because your intentions are good, and because you feel guilty for accidentally falling into a friendship with someone who’s alluringly confused and angry. Somewhere deep down inside, you feel like you really should’ve made that ENTIRE stupid elaborate menu for Jessica. Because she said so. Ooo, that Jessica! She really IS something. She sniffed out your potential as a codependent enabler from the start.
I sort of love Jessica now, I have to admit it.
So let’s break it all down again: Little Edie asked you for something absurd. You felt like you SHOULD do it. You offered to do some of it. You explained too much about what was wrong with doing more. You talked to other people about it. You sounded guilty and angry. And you REALLY wanted to talk about what a freaky psychotic throw pillow of a human Jessica is, but you knew no one would bite. So you lingered around the edges of what you TRULY wanted to say. You hinted. You grumbled. You called someone else. You tried to sound cheerful and accepting and vulnerable, but didn’t quite pull it off because you’re pissed that you’re in this mess and it’s all Little Edie’s fault.
What should you have done instead? Said no. Made a joke about food cravings. The end.
This kind of shit is so easy to do in groups. You worry and write too much and talk too much precisely because you suspect you’ll fuck it all up and get ejected, because you think a lot and talk a lot and FUCKING WHY DOESN’T ANYONE ELSE NOTICE THAT LITTLE EDIE IS AMONG US?!! It’s hard to be lively and fun but also bite your tongue. It’s hard to walk the line between being helpful and doing way too much. Groups will take advantage of your kindness. That’s what the herd does. It’s natural. The herd nods along and lets you dig yourself a hole, too. The herd doesn’t notice that Jessica is Little Edie, because Jessica seems vulnerable and soft and she needs the group to take care of her. Herd like care for baby rabbit Jessica. Herd no like sharp and pointy you, mean to baby Jessica, way down there in the dark, dark well, all alones!
What is the answer? RUN WITH THE GODDAMN HERD. Do what the herd does. And for fuck’s sake, stop looking for understanding from a herd.
Remember these words: HERD NO UNDERSTAND.
People who love herds are often people who want to keep things light and breezy at all costs. That doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of hashing shit out; they simply prefer not to. Often, Herd People are not into intimacy in friendships. When friendships get intimate, they run the other direction. I’ve had friends who lean on me, cry to me, tell me all about their troubles, and then a few weeks later when I bring something up, in order to check in, they act like I’m causing trouble. It’s as if they got drunk and blathered to me and they feel regretful about it.
Motherfuckers really struggle with intimacy, out there in the world. They don’t really want heaviness, most of ’em. They don’t want slicing and dicing. They want to go out into the sunshine and DO SHIT. DO, DO, DO. That’s all they do. Maybe when they slice and dice they get all circular and neurotic. Maybe they start to hate themselves, because those are the grooves that are worn into their synapses because they don’t have that many supportive relationships and don’t know how to lean on people without shame, so they naturally sink into a funk at the mere sight of introspection and self-analysis.
Or maybe they just like doing shit. They’re doers.
Needless to fucking say, I am not a woman of action. But I have always loved a herd. I think I’m trying to fix something from the past, with herds—mend some bad family dynamic. And I like the spirited fun a herd can get up to. But I am also terrible at herd life. I talk too much. I like to snicker about the pretentious one with the fucked up, bent-ass tail in the back, maybe hoping she’ll get picked off by the next lioness on a lunch break. I always feel guilty for not doing everything all the time. I rally everyone, then feel resentful that I’m the one spending money and hosting and cleaning up and half the fuckers show up for an hour and then bail without saying goodbye. I’m always trying to bridge the gap between the couples with kids, the couples without kids, and the singles—which is a little bit like personally flying to the Gaza strip to settle this whole Israeli-Palestinian thing once and for all.
BUT HERD NOT WANT TO BE HERDED.
Here is my advice to you: Stop talking about Jessica completely. Treat her with kindness but step back from the friendship. Say you’re busy. When she asks for stuff, say yes or no. Be really, really nice, and insist to everyone else that you two have resolved EVERYTHING, and it’s all fine. Occasionally you can meet her for coffee, tapering it off slowly until you basically never see her. Let her whine about it. Say that you’re busy. Yes, I hate being fake about this stuff, and I can tell that you do, too. BUT THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE WITH SOMEONE LIKE JESSICA. You can’t give her information or explain yourself or look for understanding or she’ll stir up more shit. So pretend to be upbeat. Pretend ignorance. ACT LIKE ONE OF THE HERD.
And then? Put more energy into your non-herd friendships. Figure out who understands you, who might talk with you about Jessica and the herd and be sympathetic, who might support you through ugliness, loss, self-doubt. You’re not a herd animal, like it or not. You struggle to be “good” in a herd. That’s ok. Just practice playing along with them, because you want them in your life. But cultivate closer friendships elsewhere. Give back all of the support and love and understanding that you take, and thank your closest, truest friends profusely for their love and support. Thank them by listening, too. If you don’t have close, true friends, work on getting some.
Guilt and anger and confusion and lots of talk around an acquaintance you can hardly stand is a waste of your time. Do you want real, intimate friends, though? Can you handle it when someone shows up and really knows you? Or are you hiding in the herd, too?
Maybe most people are. But maybe it’s time for something a little different. Maybe it’s time to know yourself better, to accept yourself—pointy edges, salty-sweetness, anger, vulnerability, longing and all—and ask for more love and understanding from people who are actually capable of giving it.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Martijn Munneke.