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The SparkNotes Blog

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Auntie SparkNotes: How Do I Set Boundaries with My Emotionally Unstable Friend?

Hello Auntie!
I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and need some help.

One of my friends, let’s call her M, and I had a VERY rocky friendship over the past couple years that has been sitting in a good place for the past several months and I am scared of undoing all that progress.

We were friends in college who moved into the city together. Our friendship became super toxic: M was very sick, dealing with undiagnosed manic depression, and felt very isolated and stressed in the city. Because of this she latched on to me as her sole support system and I became completely overwhelmed. It got to a point where I would have anxiety attacks thinking about being alone with her in the apartment at night, and she eventually attempted to take her own life.

M moved back with her parents for a while and got proper help and treatment and worked very hard to get in a good place again. We still Skype once or twice a week, and she’s come back to the city to visit me and several other friends from school twice over the past year. She now just moved into her own apartment with a new friend she made and things are looking really good for her! The problem is now she is really pressuring me to come out and visit her, halfway across the country, and the thought of it puts a HUGE pit in my stomach. Coming out to visit seems very important to her, and M recently has been starting to really guilt me into going, which is raising some of the old red flags.

I’m super hesitant to go. I don’t travel much in general, so this would be a pretty big trip for me, my other friends and family think it’s a terrible idea to go visit her (but that’s mostly because they really only knew her at her worst), and I don’t want this to become a regular thing. She has gone on several trips to visit other friends this past year, so this kind of thing is no biggie for her, but it is for me.

I just think she has different ideas on what to expect from this friendship than me, and I don’t know how to stand up to her properly since I’m scared of a big backlash. I’m also afraid of how my boyfriend will react (he was living with us for a while and was caught in a lot of the drama) since he decided to not salvage his friendship with her and hates that I even Skype her regularly. (I’m also scared this will turn into a “me or her” situation eventually, but that’s further down the line so I’ve been avoiding dealing with that HAHAHAHA.) Basically I’ll be getting in a fight with M if I stand my ground and don’t visit her, or getting into a fight with my SO if I decide to accommodate her needs and go. Should I just suck it up and go for a weekend anyway? Would that be a bad idea? How would I calm my SO down if I do go? Should I stand my ground? Is there any way out of this with getting into a fight with someone??

Well, sure there is! Because here’s the thing, darling: a fight requires the participation of two people. So if you don’t want to have one, you don’t have to — particularly over a decision that’s entirely yours to make. All you have to do is decline the pretense that your choices are available to be argued about.

Of course, that’s also the real issue here. Whether or not you visit your friend is largely beside the point. Your real problem, and it’s a big one, is the way you’re agonizing over that decision, all while standing at the center of a social circle made up entirely of people you’re afraid to say “no” to. You’re so used to bending to the will of whoever’s closest and most overbearing that you don’t even know what you want, yourself.

But that’s why your first step is figuring that out. Do you want to visit your friend? If the answer is a solid yes, then go. If it’s a solid no, then don’t. And if you’re on the fence about it, then ask yourself this: is this friend important enough that you would want to stretch beyond your comfort zone for her, knowing how much she really, really wants to have you visit? Or would taking the trip be akin to false advertising—a show of closeness that you neither feel nor want? If you feel like your friend wants more from you than you’re capable of giving, might this be a worthwhile opportunity to establish some boundaries? And if your not-going were to mark the start of a little distance between you, would that actually be a bad thing?

This is the stuff you need to think about—and you need to do that alone, in a quiet place where your own desires can’t be drowned out by the blatting of everyone else’s opinions. Because once you’ve figured out what you want, then whatever you want is what you’re going to do. And more importantly, you’re going to own it, and let the chips fall where they may. If you decide to go and your boyfriend freaks out, then let him freak out. If you decide not to go and your friend gets upset, then let her get upset. Other people are not bombs that you have to pretzel yourself to defuse, okay? Your only responsibility in this scenario is to be confident about your choice, to the tune of responding graciously but firmly to anyone who pressures you. If you’re going: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but M is still my friend, she’s worked hard to get where she is, and I want to see and support her.”

Or, if you’re not going: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t feel comfortable making such a long trip on my own”—which you can always follow up with alternative suggestions (a weekend rendezvous in a midpoint city, maybe?) if you want to soften the blow (and assuming you do actually want to see her).

And ideally, this should be how you handle all your decisions from now on. Not that you’ll always get your way, or only ever do exactly what you want with no compromises or caveats—but you should always be unapologetically and thoroughly aware of what it is that you want. And since many if not most of your relationships seem predicated on you tying yourself into knots to please other people, you should prepare yourself to get some pushback from anyone who’s gotten a little too used to pushing you around…and possibly to cut ties with the ones who can’t get used to respecting your choices.

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