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Auntie SparkNotes: My Friend Is Using His Depression to Blackmail Me for a Date

Dear Auntie,

I’m a 17-year-old girl, and I moved to a new school for my senior year of high school. I didn’t know anyone at first, but in the first week I hit it off with this guy we will call Ryan. As time went on, I made more friends, but I would still text with Ryan. Sometimes, the conversations would get kind of flirty from his end, but I would always make it clear that I wasn’t looking for a relationship and he would back off.

A week ago he messaged me and admitted to me that he was depressed. According to him, even his parents don’t know, just a few of his closest friends. I was super worried for him, but he told me he wasn’t suicidal. He begged me not to tell anyone, and I promised not to. Still, I urged him to talk to someone about it (like a school counsellor), but he said he really didn’t want his parents to find out. He asked if he could talk to me instead, and, as his friend, I told him I would. We’ve been messaging every night since.

Two nights ago is when it started to get weird. Ryan texted me saying he was depressed because no girl would ever like him, and that having a girlfriend who was there for him would make him so much happier. I waved it off, saying that he had his friends who were there for him. Later in the conversation, he brought up the subject again. He talked about “wanting a girlfriend as awesome as you,” and how having a girlfriend like me would make him so much happier. I told him very firmly that I wasn’t interested in a relationship, but that I was sure there was someone for him. I thought that would be the end of the discussion.

But, last night he texted me saying how sad he felt, and how it would help his depression so much if I went on a date with him. His comments made me really uncomfortable, so I told him I had to go to bed. Under normal circumstances, I would have stood my ground and told him angrily that I didn’t like him. But if he’s depressed, I don’t want to hurt him more than he is already hurting, or say something that will make him sad.

What do I do Auntie? I talked to some of Ryan’s friends, and they said he’s been depressed since last year, so I don’t think he’s lying to me about that. He says he needs someone to talk to, but I feel like he’s using his depression to manipulate me into dating him! I like being there for him, but I’ve already told him firmly that I don’t like him! Also, I’m uncomfortable not telling an adult. Should I tell the counsellor, even though I promised not to? Is there a way I can cut Ryan out of my life without hurting him?

Let’s start with the bad news: the answer to that last question, alas, is no. Being excised from the life of someone you care about is a decidedly unpleasant experience, which means that you can’t do that thing to this person without causing him pain.

But! BUT! That is not, in fact, a reason not to do that thing! And in fact, that thing is a thing you must do, the fact that it will hurt Ryan’s feelings nonwithstanding. Hurt feelings suck, yes, but they’re not a tragedy to be avoided at all costs; oftentimes, they’re the unfortunate but necessary price of behaving like a decent human being. And that’s something you already realize, I think, albeit perhaps in a subconscious way. After all, rejecting the guy romantically hurt his feelings, too — and yet you’ve intuitively grasped throughout this entire sad scenario that rejecting him was something you had to do.

Which is to say, now is not the time to start second-guessing your gut instincts with regard to Ryan just because he’s cranked his manipulation game up extra-high. You know where the boundaries of appropriate behavior are; you also know that this guy left them in the dust a long time ago. And even if that’s a result of his depression, that still wouldn’t make it okay.

Meanwhile — and this is going to sound heartless, but dude, someone’s gotta say it — it’s certainly possible that Ryan is genuinely and clinically depressed, but it’s also possible that he’s just lonely, and desperate, and savvy enough to realize that “I’m depressed” is a hell of a trump card when you’re trying to play on someone’s sympathies. (As you’ve found, it’s hard to push back against; people are much more inclined to let their boundaries be trampled than to feel like the bad guy who made a sad person’s life sadder.) And even if his claims of depression aren’t a lie, per se, his claims that going on a date with you would “help” his condition are pure, unadulterated, grade-A horse excrement that it’s high time you stopped listening to — and it’s all the justification you need for cutting ties. In addition to being manipulative, Ryan’s behavior betrays a total lack of respect for you as a person. It’s no way to treat a friend.

Here’s where this leaves you: Starting now, you’ll need to distance yourself from this guy, and let him know in no uncertain terms that if he needs someone to talk to, that person can’t be you. There is no shame or harm in saying, “This relationship is no longer healthy or okay. You’re asking me for the kind of support I’m not equipped to give, and your attempts to guilt trip me into dating you are not appropriate. I wish you the best, but I can’t be in touch with you anymore.”

And that (or an in-your-own-words version thereof) is what you should say, in an nutshell. And as for whether you should tell your school counselor, that’s up to you; you’re certainly not obligated to do it on Ryan’s account, but if it makes you feel more comfortable about stepping away, then go for it. It’s not like you have anything to lose when you’re terminating this friendship anyway, and it certainly won’t do him any harm to have an adult looking out for him. So do what you have to do, be strong enough to stick to your guns in the face of any additional (and let’s be honest, probably inevitable) plays for your attention, and be glad for Ryan’s sake that he now has the space in his life to a) get help for his depression, such as it may be, and b) to pursue someone who likes him as a person instead of tolerates him as a pity case.

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