Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Is It Wrong to Break Up With a Friend in a Horrible Situation?”

Broken heart

One of my best college friends has been in a relationship with a terrible man for a decade. While there’s no direct physical abuse, there have been issues with drugs, crime, being evicted because he used the rent money for drugs, losing their car because of his drunk driving, verbal abuse, and having a lot of her things broken during his angry outbursts. He’s also slowly isolated her from friends and family, and they now live several states away in a very rural area. Once every year or two she expresses a need to leave him, and our mutual college friends and I immediately drain our bank accounts to get her a storage unit, plane ticket, car rental, motel, etc. so she can leave without worrying about the logistics that often keep people stuck in abusive relationships. She leaves, he begs her to come back, then within weeks they are back together. Then I don’t hear from her until she reaches out for help to leave again.

I love this friend and am worried for her, but I feel that I have done everything I can to help her and that I can no longer watch what is happening to her. I’m a domestic abuse survivor so this is triggering, and I feel like I’m just waiting for him to cross the line to physical abuse or worse. She and I have not had a conversation in the last six years about anything other than my sending her money to leave him, so our friendship is entirely based off our college relationship and my and our mutual friends’ concern for her. She doesn’t have family or any local friends, so our college crew is her entire support system. It seems wrong to totally abandon her when she’s in such a bad situation, but the situation is unlikely to change and it’s negatively impacting my mental health. On the other hand, is it totally immoral to break up with a friend who is in a horrible situation? I don’t want to ghost her, but I also have no idea what to say to her the next time she calls. I wish I could promise that I’ll be there to support her, but that’s what I’ve been doing and it hasn’t worked. Any advice is appreciated. — Can’t Watch

It is not wrong to break up with a friend who hasn’t, for at least six years, reached out to you for anything other than help (and who has then exploited and wasted the help). It’s not wrong to break up with someone whose lifestyle triggers bad memories for you and whose choices frustrate you and cost you money. You can, if you want, leave this friendship with a clear conscience, and you can do so without even ghosting your friend. You can wait until she inevitably calls you again for help and then explain: “I have offered you help numerous times which has gone unused. I cannot afford to, financially or emotionally, offer any more help to you, but I can offer well-wishes and the hope that you are able to find the path you want and deserve. I send you love and wish you the best of luck.”

I do have to wonder, though, why you’ve continued for so many years a “friendship” that has offered you nothing. What can you possibly get out of it? Is it only guilt, nostalgia, and some sense of duty to help a fellow victim of abuse that has kept you in touch with this former college friend? I’m concerned that you’ve repeatedly drained your bank account for anyone, let alone someone who is no longer a real friend — someone with whom you have not shared any part of your life for years. This isn’t a heroic act; it’s irresponsible. And if this behavior is indicative of the way you conduct yourself in other relationships and friendships in your life, I would urge you to reconsider not just this specific friendship, but also all of them as well as the boundaries you’ve set in them.

I’m assuming you’re in your late 20s, a natural time to re-evaluate friendships in our lives. Are there other people to whom you find yourself giving and giving who do not give back to you or do not appreciate your investment of time and love and energy and money (not that you should be giving money directly to friends on a regular basis at all, but money is necessary for many of the ways we maintain friendships — plane tickets, vacations, outings and adventures, wine and take-out night, etc.)? If there are other people in your life with whom you have an imbalanced give-and-take, it’s ok for you to change or shift the status of the friendship. You don’t need an inciting incident to “demote” or even break up with a friend, and you don’t even need to let that friend know what you’re doing; simply quietly scaling back on our investments usually does the trick.

Between being a martyr and flat-out dumping someone is a lot of grey area where you have the freedom and leeway to define (and re-define) a friendship. There are lots of reasons why someone whose company we might have once enjoyed and whose memory brings us warm thoughts might not be a part of our lives in a significant way anymore. Maybe we’ve simply grown apart and no longer enjoy that person’s company. Maybe there are other people whose company we enjoy more and whom we make more time for. Maybe the friend no longer shows interest in our lives or who we are now. Sometimes, I think we keep certain friendships in an elevated position in our hearts and minds out of an obligation to the history we’ve shared with those friends. It’s a disservice to ourselves when we do this. It promotes guilt and feelings of failure, and it muddies the good memories we have the friendship when it was more effortless and natural.

I say let go of this friendship and cherish the memories you share of your friend while maintaining boundaries that protect your time and energy. Send good thoughts and well wishes, and then accept that any additional support you’ve offered (repeatedly!) in the past was not taken. You have been released of any feelings of guilt or regret. You’ve gone way above what you reasonably should have and it didn’t make a difference. It’s now time to move on, with a clear conscience, and focus on the friendships that continue to enrich your life.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

7 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Brise August 1, 2016, 9:33 am

    Sad, indeed, I understand your problem and it is a shame to see a friend waste her youth like this. But does it really impact your mental health if she calls every other year for help? Don’t send money anymore, it doesn’t make sense. What Wendy advised to say is fine. You can also recommend her a support (online center, or phone number, or local association) for women in abusive relationship. They are such supports which would certainly help her. You could call them too if you suffer yourself of this situation, they will probably help you too, at least to understand the dynamics and to protect your own emotions.

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    • avatar

      bondgirl August 1, 2016, 10:37 am

      Agreed with this advice. I think providing a center name, hotline phone number, or even a therapist’s contact info is still a means to give support to a friend while maintaining distance. You can bring a fish to someone but can’t make them learn how to fish, you know? It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to see anyone you care about going through something like this, but eventually you need to learn to protect your own well being first and then hope that person eventually works up the courage to do something about the destructive behavior — whether it’s a toxic relationship, a drug/alcohol addiction, etc. They’ve gotta want it for themselves, this isn’t something you can do for them.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros August 1, 2016, 10:42 am

    I think the ideal situation would have been to be her friend and support her over the years, but not give her money. I think that your friendship (or what’s left of it) would have been more sustainable so that you wouldn’t necessary feel like you have to totally cut her off at this time. Helping a friend who is in an abusive relationship doesn’t mean you have to drain your bank account for them, particularly if you know that she has a history of using up your money and then going back to him.

    In some situations, I’d say that it’d be nice if you could set some boundaries for yourself (which probably should have been set previously) and still offer emotional support. But since the way this has played out has left you feeling super drained (not to mention that because of your own past, you feel triggered), then it’s up to you how to handle this. I guess if you really only talk to her to give her money, then there doesn’t appear to be much of a friendship anymore.

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  • findingtheearth

    findingtheearth August 1, 2016, 10:51 am

    I agree with cutting her off financially. Research the information for the local Domestic Abuse Program, women’s shelter, Salvation Army, etc., and have it on hand. Explain that you cannot financially support her anymore and that her constant going back and forth is debilitating to your own healing.

    I would also recommend you see a counselor yourself about this friendship. It may help to discuss why you keep going back and giving so much of yourself with nothing in return.

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  • Guy Friday

    Guy Friday August 1, 2016, 4:22 pm

    Oh, LW. I can empathize with you, because I’m the same way you are. I give people everything I have, and then I give them more, because I figure that I have an obligation as a friend and as a HUMAN BEING to do this for them. And when people tell us that we shouldn’t do it, it’s like they’re talking a strange foreign language; aren’t we taught to help our fellow man regardless of the cost?

    But I’m going to tell you what my therapist told me about a year ago, and it really made me reevaluate my interactions. Do you know how, on airplanes, they tell you that if the oxygen masks come down you’re supposed to make sure yours is securely on and air is flowing to it before you help a child or someone else in need? Why do they do that? Well, it’s because you’re of no use to those other people in need if you pass out from lack of oxygen while helping them, and in fact you end up causing other people more work because they have to save both the person in need AND you now. You mean to do well, but you end up compounding the problem.

    Even if you had never helped her before, the fact that you have a DV trigger would have been enough to be “forgiven” (for lack of any better term) for not helping her even once. But you have helped time and time again. You’ve provided emotional and financial support more than once. And I imagine that you probably understated the impact this has had on you in your letter for fear of “sounding like one of those people.” Someone needs to be blunt with you though, so it may as well be me: her future blood is not on your hands. Metaphoric or literal blood. It’s not on your hands. You cannot help someone who does not want to be helped. There is NO ONE here or anywhere else who will judge you for not doing more for this friend. It is a toxic friendship because of what it is doing to you, and it’s OK to put your oxygen mask on first now. Maybe, someday, years from now, you’ll be in a better place and you’ll be able to reach out to her again. Maybe you never will be in that place for this person. But either way, it’s OK, and you need to let yourself accept that you need to take care of yourself for a while now, which means not talking to her. Honestly, I think even ghosting her is justifiable here, given how much of a trigger this is for you.

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark August 1, 2016, 10:12 pm

    Dump her. Lost causes are a waste of time. MOA.

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  • FireStar

    Firestar August 2, 2016, 7:09 am

    It’s not really a friendship anymore, is it? You don’t speak regularly or enjoy each other’s company. She isn’t there for you in any kind of a way. She’s someone who used to be a friend… Years ago. Now she’s someone you don’t really know anymore, that asks you for money. There are millions of people in need. People that actually long for help and the opportunity to better their situations. Help them. You have an extra $20? buy a couple of mosquito nets so children don’t contract malaria and die. $7 buys you a mango tree so school children gave something to eat. The help you wasted on the girl you knew from school years ago, you can channel into something productive and good. Accept that you are clinging to what used to be and not what is. Tell her you’re done. Or ghost her. Or tell her the hotline number when she calls. She isn’t someone who benefits from outside help. Not the kind you can give. So stop enabling her little dance she does with her boyfriend. When she’s truly ready she’ll rescue herself. Tell her call you then.

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