A few months ago, my friend Ann started dating a guy called Bill. They seemed like a match made in heaven and I was really excited for her, but things went downhill quickly.
Bill has depression, and warned Ann that during bad times he can become distant. What he didn’t tell her is that in his case, “distant” means completely cutting her off. The second time this happened, he broke up with her via text and then didn’t speak to her for over a week, after which they got back together. Bill intentionally went off his medication before these incidents, and told Ann throughout the situation that he “wasn’t interested in changing.”
At this point I was really worried that he would end up hurting her in the long run, but continued to support her because she was confident about continuing the relationship.
A few weeks ago, Bill again went off his medication, got drunk, and slept with another girl. He told Ann that he couldn’t promise her it wouldn’t happen again, and continued to let the girl hang around his apartment with his other housemates. Ann was heartbroken, but decided that she can fix him through love and support.
I told her that depression isn’t an excuse for his choices to drink or sleep around, especially when he is refusing help by discontinuing his medication and blatantly telling her he is not interested in changing. I also told her that if they continued to stay together long-term it would be hard for me to keep seeing them together or even go to their wedding, if it reached that point, because I have so little respect for him and because I can’t stand to see her give everything to someone who is not returning any compassion or respect to her.
Ann told me that I am just not understanding of depression. That was the last time we’ve spoken in almost three weeks.
I know that what I said was harsh, but I didn’t expect it to be the kind of thing that would entirely kill our friendship. I told her that the only reason I was saying it was because I can’t stand the idea of watching her get hurt even more by this person. I also feel sad that she believes I am not compassionate to people with depression. I don’t know what to do next. I want to reach out to Ann, but I don’t know what to say because I can’t truly apologize for what happened. I am regretful that I hurt her so much with what I said, but I don’t regret the sentiments, and I can’t support her relationship when I have so much distrust and anger for Bill.
What should I do, Auntie?
For starters, Sparkler, you should recognize the difference between feeling uncomfortable because you made the wrong decision, and feeling sad because you made a difficult one.
Because man, is this ever a case of the latter situation. You may have jumped the gun a bit on some of the specifics (side note: generally, you want to save any pronouncements about wedding boycotts until the couple in question is actually engaged), but as you pointed out yourself, it’s not like you said something untrue. Your friend has chosen to invest herself in fixing a guy who has explicitly and repeatedly told her that he has no interest in changing his behavior; of course you’re horrified, and of course you don’t support her continued relationship with him under the circumstances.
And that’s okay! It’s not only natural for you to feel the way you do, but you’re also entirely within your rights to say so. What’s interesting about your letter is that unlike so many other people in your situation, you seem to have a pretty healthy sense of boundaries vis-a-vis your role in Ann’s love life. You’re not trying to meddle in or bust up her relationship; you’re not telling her what to do. The only thing you’ve done is to tell her how you feel, as her friend, when you see her choosing to stay with someone who continually mistreats her.
That’s a fair thing. It’s arguably even the right thing. Unfortunately, what’s your prerogative to say is also Ann’s prerogative to refuse to hear… or in this case, to respond to with an accusation that’s as insulting as it is ridiculous. The problem here is not that you lack compassion for depressed people. You know that, I know that, and in all likelihood, even Ann knows that. It’s just part of the story she’s telling herself right now to justify her choice to stay with him—and if you do care about her, it would be in your best interests not to take it personally. I know she said it to you, but it’s really not about you.
Meanwhile, the grace it takes to give your friend a pass on the “you just don’t understand depression” nonsense is the same grace it takes to reach out and say, “It was never my intention to end our friendship over this.” That’s the move available to you, if you want to make it—to clarify that your expression of concern was not a “him or me” ultimatum, and to let Ann know you’re still there for her. (And since you’ve said what you had to say, there’ll be no need to hash out your feelings about her jerk boyfriend ever again.)
You must realize, though, that situations like this one tend to shake the foundations of a person’s relationships, and when the dust settles, things aren’t always as they were. What you said may have changed the way Ann feels about your friendship, but Ann’s behavior in this situation is bound to affect your view of her, too. You’re each seeing a side of the other person that hasn’t previously been visible—and even if you’re willing to continue your friendship with her (at least as long as you can convince her to hang out solo, and leave the Bad Boyfriend at home), Ann may issue an ultimatum of her own, and decide that she can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t support her relationship. All you can do is your best, while maintaining your integrity and remaining mindful of the boundaries between your life and another person’s. But if you’re lucky — and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that you are — Ann will wise up soon and eject this neer-do-well dude from her life. And when she does, maybe you’ll be the friend who cared enough to be honest but respected her enough not to overstep… and who could say “I told you so,” but won’t, because you know she doesn’t need to hear it.
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