The Vine: February 8, 2012
I have an "expired friendship" question. I've known this friend (Mark, let's say) since our first year of college, which was nearly twenty years ago. I considered him one of my closest friends, and he would have said the same. He was always smart and funny and fun to be with. However.
About ten years ago, Mark told me that he suffered from addiction (sexually compulsive behavior and some drug issues). He'd hidden it from everyone for years. He was seeing a therapist, went to various twelve-step programs, and threw himself into recovery. That was all good, and while he's suffered relapses, he is a healthier person. His whole life, however, became about his recovery. He has few (maybe zero, now) friends that are not "from group," he attends group daily (sometimes several times a day), he goes on retreats, and he sees his therapist at least once a week. He became, really, a therapy addict and a zealot, insisting that everyone is actually sick and should be in therapy, and lots of it at that. I don't have a problem with therapy, but I don't think it's a panacea, nor is it for everyone.
So while it was good for him, to a point, his new therapy-centric life didn't fix his worst quality: tremendous self-involvement. In fact, therapy seemed to aggravate his narcissism by validating — in his mind, at least — his self-absorption. He'd always been unreliable, but now he was supposed to "focus on himself" and to him that meant license to never do anything he didn't feel like doing. Like skipping a friend's wedding (that was being held ten minutes away) because he didn't feel like going. There are dozens of examples, most small, some big.
For a while I forgave his thoughtlessness — he has an addiction, he's in recovery. But after ten years in recovery, and the millionth time he was rude to someone since he "needed to focus on me right now," I realized: this is just who he is. I would occasionally tell him that I felt I couldn't rely on him (and his unreliability was a running joke among our friends) and he would say that he didn't want to be that kind of person…but it never changed. He was never going to be done focusing on himself. So over a year and a half ago I took a break. There were precipitating events, though nothing out of the ordinary for him (he hurt the feelings of a friend who was visiting by repeatedly blowing him off). We didn't have a discussion, there was no fight, I just had had enough. He tried contacting me a few times, then he gave up.
I had some misgivings, of course, because I hate to walk away from such a long friendship. It was nice, however, to have the stress and anger out of my life. Any remaining misgivings were swept away when I discovered that a few months ago he dumped his dog (whom I had helped him adopt a couple years earlier through the shelter I volunteer for) back at the shelter. Reason? He needed more time to focus on himself. Working with homeless dogs is probably my one real passion, and after that, there really is no salvaging the relationship.
Today Mark emailed me saying he's been "looking at [his] past relationships" and that he wants see me to "connect with [me] about some of [his] past behavior." It's quite a formal email and he says he doesn't think this meeting would take a long time, so I don't think he is trying to restart the friendship. I instead get the distinct idea that the purpose of the meeting is therapeutic. I can't imagine what I might get out of the conversation, and that irritates me. I made a conscious decision to move on and now he wants to see me, not because of anything to do with me, but in order to help him understand his own behavior. From his email, I gather I'm either supposed to passively listen to him talk about his actions, or actively help him understand his past behavior. Neither is palatable to me, since both underscore his continuing narcissism.
The question! Do I sit there and listen to Mark talk about himself, or do I tell him I'm not up for it? If the latter, do I explain why, or if the former, do I relate to him my frustration at being used? I'm irked that I'm expected to be a sounding board as he navel-gazes, and even if what he contemplates is an apology or making amends…what is the point? I don't want an apology or amends; I just don't want to deal with him anymore. On the other hand, it's not like he's really asking for a lot, especially after so many years, and I generally like to be helpful and nice. I'm not an analyst — maybe he is really making progress in therapy that I don't see and something like this would really help him. So…I'm torn. And would welcome a fresh perspective on this.
Thanks. You can sign me…
So Very Tired Of This
I see what you're saying. I'd usually ask right up front what you want out of the interaction, but you've already got that straight for yourself: you don't want anything.
…Well, not from Mark. Another thing you want, I think, is to not come off like that asshole who wouldn't accept an amends from someone who's trying to get better, which is understandable, but 1) so is wanting to keep your distance here, and deciding to hold your boundary doesn't make you an asshole; and 2) my understanding, if this is in fact an amends scenario, is that the addict/amender understands that not everyone he approaches with amends is going to want to let him back in, even briefly, and he has a support structure for that. In other words, if you want to "do you" and not get sucked in, it doesn't make you a jerk and it won't shove him off the wagon.
By that same token, going and hearing him out doesn't make you a sucker by extension. You give him one last half-hour of your time, you hear him out, and you return to your life. Yeah, it's an imposition, but at this point, you know better than to expect anything from him, so you do him a small mitzvah and go back to not dealing with him.
…Hmm, I guess I'm torn also. You know what? Don't go, and here's why. You're already annoyed, and you're already trying to come up with ways to explain to him — for what it sounds like is the fiftieth time — why his self-absorption alienates you and hurts your feelings, and you shouldn't go back down that road, because the scenery isn't going to have changed. If you do feel like you can sit with him over a cup of coffee and listen to what he has to say and not feel a lava flow of "AND WE'RE TALKING ABOUT YOU AGAIN ARGH" rising into the back of your throat, great. If you already feel that lava flow, honestly, meeting up with him won't do much good for you or him.
So. Be real with yourself about whether reconnecting with him is going to dredge up the old feelings of disappointment and frustration that caused you to let the friendship go in the first place — and if it is, respond with a simple "I won't be able to do that; best of luck to you."