Asking For A Friend: How To Be BFFs With Boundaries

Dear Olive,

I have a friend who is the “other woman” in a relationship. I am trying to support her, but I find myself getting frustrated that she doesn’t take my advice. She wants to end up with him, but it’s clear that this man isn’t good for her. He is manipulative, and the drama associated with him is taking over her life. She is such a great woman and deserves so much better.

How do I tell her that this guy sucks without ruining our friendship?

-Be Fri

 

Dear Olive,

I made a decision that my best friend doesn’t support. Since making it, I’ve been less open with this friend about the minutiae of my daily life; I feel like if I share the good stuff, their feelings will be hurt, and if I share the bad stuff, they’ll use it to strengthen their case for why I made the wrong choice. We’ve grown apart because of it. I miss our closeness and want to be supportive, especially because they’re going through a hard time. What to do?

-St End

 

Dear Best Friends,

How I wish my closest confidantes knew how to walk the tightrope strung between meddling on one side and indifference on the other. I wish they knew when to slap me out of my murkiest funks and when to let me stew in them as long as I felt like. I wish they’d support every choice I ever made, except for the ones I need their help avoiding, and always tell me my hair looked amazing except for when I want them to be lovingly honest so I don’t think it’s just me who thinks it looks like an ‘80s haircut catalog. I wish they’d tell me exactly what they need when they’re lonely or confused or contagious, and I wish I never had to say anything for them to notice when I’m hangry or sad. I wish they listened to me all the times I’m right and knew better than I do when I’m not. I wish they lived in my head and knew everything I knew, except for all the times I wish exactly the opposite.

It would certainly be easier if all the things we needed came without asking and in exactly the right amounts — love without judgment, conflict without confusion, all cats without fleas, and every breakfast on every menu without any time limit. (I mean, as long as we’re wishing for stuff.)

But you and I — both of you — know that the reality is less pristine, that most breakfasts end sometime around 11 and usually even earlier on weekdays. In most of our more adult moments we can even acknowledge that, frustrated breakfast burrito dreams aside, we prefer it that way. Imagine if your loved ones were no more surprising than your own certainties: how boring, and how lonely, that would be.

You write from opposite sides of an eternal struggle, but the question is the same whichever way you look at it: What do I do when it turns out that my best friend and I are actually different people?

You two don’t know each other, and since this is the internet, anonymous and huge, you probably never will. But here you are, writing from two sides of not talking freely, the barrier built both by the certainty of your own convictions and the resistance to inflict them on your loved ones. Be Fri, you’re so frustrated with what you see as your friend’s trampled boundaries that you’re dismantling your own. St End, you’re so cautious about keeping your distance from your friend’s disapproval that you’ve decided to preempt conflict and do all the judging for them.

You both write with compassion, though, not just conviction. It’s clear you love your friends. But love doesn’t align beliefs or fuse people’s edges; it just moves them closer to one another. The edges persist, even as they snarl or bounce or fizzle with static. They shift. Sometimes they bump and bruise. Attention to those edges, to how boundaries keep each of you whole, independent, and capable of closeness, is the work of any relationship. In the tender tangle of your current tensions, you have an opportunity to choose what kind of attention you’ll give them.

Be Fri, the man your friend has chosen is not the issue. You say she’s been ignoring your advice, so it sounds like you’ve already offered it; since you’re asking about how to have that conversation again, either the advice hasn’t landed or your friend isn’t interested. Wish as you might, only the first part of that is in your control.

Have you been as direct, specific and kind to her as you sound in your letter? If your advice has been tepid while your feelings have boiled, consider another attempt — not more vehement, but more honest — to relay to your friend how much you love her and how painful it is to see her make one sacrifice after another.

After that, you get to decide how much you’re willing to ignore, and you get to tell your friend your decision. Maybe you’re game for the crisis venting and the tequila nights but not the endless texts. Maybe you can have a conversation, or a hundred, but can’t laugh along with the depressing jokes she makes. Maybe you can offer suggestions when she asks but need to block the photos she shares on Facebook.

Instead of looking for new ways to get through to her, ask yourself what would happen if that agreement never came. After all, you might be wrong — if not about the guy’s character, then about your friend’s desires. If this is the life she’s chosen, where do you want to fit? What can you offer, and what do you need?

Consider your boundaries with your friend, not hers with someone else, and show up as fully as you can for the relationship you have. And if you decide to keep it, don’t let your disapproval for her choices be louder than your actions.

St End, that’s the interloper you’re skating around. You can feel your friend’s disappointment even in their silence, and you’re imagining a whole symphony to fill its outlines. What I can’t tell from your letter is whether there’s more than silence coming from your friend. Is your fear of being “told ya so”-ed based on their continuing attempts to sway you, or on a what-if phantom following you around?

Either way: you need to remind both yourself and your friend about the space between you. It’s okay to tell them that you know they disapprove, and that you’ve made your choice in spite of that. It’s okay to ask for their support when you need it, even to ask them to table their disdain and just love you, and it’s okay to walk away if they can’t deliver or don’t want to try.

What doesn’t help either of you is holding back out of fear. If your friend is hurt by your happiness, that’s on them. They might even be right in their judgment, but they don’t have the right to dangle it over you. Maybe, like Be Fri, they just want what’s best for you. That doesn’t mean you have to agree or apologize for having a different idea of what that looks like.

I can see from both of your letters that you recognize a sliver of something else important in these questions, something that’s not about who’s right, but who’s connected. You miss your best friends. You love them. You want your closeness — but not if discarding an important part of your truest self is the sacrifice.

In resilient friendships, even in conflict, that truest self shouldn’t be a discarded sacrifice, resented or required; it can be an offering. It’s gift, barter, insurance and investment all at once (at least until benevolent mind-reading is an option). Show up for your friends bearing truth, knowing that it might be declined, and knowing that disagreement doesn’t mean destruction. Boundaries, even new ones, don’t mean your friendship is breaking. Hold tight to what’s possible when mutual support isn’t contingent on acquiescence. And remember that even when their edges look ragged or sharp or unfinished, those plastic half-heart pendants only mean anything when they dangle on separate strings.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to yourfriendolive@gmail.com or to our anonymous portal. We want it all: the embarrassing, the baffling, the epistemological. Check back in two weeks from now for another dose of aggressively earnest advice, next time on Asking For a Friend.

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