Dear Carolyn: I was in a relationship that ended (mostly mutually) almost a year ago. I have made peace with its ending because it was bad for both of us. She took me for granted and I became a version of myself that I really hated (a doormat, to be blunt). We both acted in unhealthy ways.
I moved away not long after the breakup and we have not seen each other but are still in contact. I still care about her very much, but have no interest in dramatic history repeating itself.
Problem is, she is troubled — childhood trauma, personality disorder(s) — and leans on me every time something bad happens. She lashes out when my support isn’t “enough,” and every so often she lashes out at me for not visiting her, which would require a significant trip and at least one night stay. She becomes belligerent and confrontational, and I feel her expectations of me are unfair.
Most of the time she is a good, caring friend whom I love dearly. But I am growing very tired of the guilt trips and confrontation. I don’t want to cut her out of my life, but I don’t know how to deal with this situation at all.
So, you’re standing by an unlocked exit, saying, “It stinks in here, but I don’t want to leave.”
She’s still taking you for granted. If that’s what you want, then who am I to talk you out of it — but you don’t owe it to anybody to take such abuse.
If your history with and fondness for her obligate you in any way, in fact, you owe it to her not to take her abuse. Having a loving doormat handy is one way emotionally unhealthy people can postpone (and postpone, and postpone) doing the hard work they need. Meanwhile, people who need good, professional mental health care often are the last to recognize or admit this to themselves. You cushion her from her truth.
This enabling mimics an addiction, sating you both short-term but stunting you both over time, so it must stop.
It’s easier than you might think, especially since you moved. That means your “still in contact” is all happening via one communications technology or another, which means you can simply choose not to respond. “I'll be happy to reply/talk to you when you’re calm,” you say/text/type, followed by silence while she isn’t calm and support when she is.
When your “support isn’t ‘enough,’ ” this is your new mantra: “I’m not equipped to give you the help you need.” Suggest she see a therapist, help her find one, direct her there if she has one, but don’t serve as an untrained substitute for one. You can learn more about this by calling the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 800-950-NAMI.
If she doesn’t respect the new boundaries you set for her, then you will need to use that unlocked exit, for good.
And if you find you’re not able to set or enforce these boundaries to begin with, then consider therapy of your own — or the under-$25 version, Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, which is nominally about violence but really about setting limits. Saying no when your well-being demands it isn’t mean, it’s a gesture of strength and love.