Today’s question comes from a woman who regrets letting a friendship get too close too quickly and now must find a way to establish better boundaries. Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form . You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.
Last June a woman named “Vivian” moved into my building. She’s a teacher with lots of credentials (her statement), my age, and we have some similar interests. I nose-dived right into a friendship with her assuming we had a lot in common. I invited her to events, introduced her to my friends and no doubt gave the impression that I wanted to be friends.
Several months passed before I realized that we weren’t at all a good match and I started to dislike being around her. She had quite a few difficult situations (not getting the job she wanted, having her car die), but persevered despite these setbacks. The problem is that she blames everyone else for her difficulties and never takes responsibility. Since she has no one else to talk to, she uses me to vent. I mostly feel awful after these talks. Yet I realize she is alone in a new city and has no other support.
For those and other reasons, I do not want to be friends, but also don’t want to hurt her feelings. She knocks on my door or phones almost every day. I feel harrassed and have spoken to her about my need for better boundaries, but she does not get it. I find myself turning off all my lights so she will not know I am home and I don’t answer my phone or go to the door. This feels cowardly.
What can I do to find peace and not make her life any more difficult in the process?
Suffering From Friendship Regret
Dear Suffering From Friendship Regret,
First, I want you to know that clicking with Vivian in those early weeks makes perfect sense. In fact, research explains why diving into a friendship with her felt natural. I think it’s helpful to know about that research so that in the future you can be aware of the factors that can make us feel an instant connection with others while still staying aware of the need to take things slowly. I have definitely taken friendships too quickly, and it is much easier to let a friendship grow over time than to reset it once certain expectations are in place.
According to Ori and Rom Brafman, authors of the book Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do, there are five accelerators that make us feel connected to someone, at least at the outset.
The first way we click is through some similarity, or at least a perceived similarity. Even the most surface commonalities like the same name can make us like the next person more. The second accelerator is vulnerability. While Vivian’s ability to open up to you eventually became a burden, it probably made you feel closer to her at first.
The third accelerator came to mind immediately when I read your question, and that is proximity. You can’t get more convenient than the same building. The Brafmans found in their research that just living in the same city was not enough of an accelerator. When they measured proximity, they reported in feet–as in cubicles, dorm rooms, and neighborhoods. When a friend is right there, we tend to excuse other less than stellar qualities, and I believe that happened in this case.
The fourth accelerator is resonance, which the Brafmans describe as being in tune with others and demonstrating empathy. I could see why Vivian felt this from you since you were sensitive to her status as a newcomer. And the fifth one is called safe place. That one refers to experiencing an adversity at the same time or a positive shared experience like a group vacation. Even living in the same building and dealing with the winter together when it’s easier to stay inside would create a certain closeness in a new friendship.
I brought up the Brafmans’ work to help explain why you and Vivian had many good reasons to be instant friends. Hopefully knowing about these accelerators also serves as a warning to take things slowly the next time. We don’t need all five accelerators in place to feel that chemistry, and chemistry is a tricky element in a relationship that can cloud our better judgement. Same goes for romantic partners!
You said that Vivian has no other support, but if she’s new to town that will change in time. You’ve been very generous by including her in events and introducing her to your friends, but there’s no reason that you have to be the sole confidant for her. Isn’t it also possible that Vivian has started making other friends during these months that you’ve been avoiding her? Either way, since you want her to stop knocking on your door every day, it’s time to take some action. You can’t be hiding out in your apartment!
Taking action will have to strike a balance between getting the job done (resetting the relationship to one that is more neighbor/acquaintance than close friend) and not hurting Vivian’s feelings. In past answers for this column I have discussed fading back from a friendship, which is usually less painful to the next person. But in cases like this where your attempts to fade back have not worked, I’m afraid that you’ll have to extract yourself from the relationship. However, I would liken this “extraction” to the use of smoke grenades, not live fire.
Look for an opportunity to take a true time commitment from your life and make it slightly bigger than it is. Perhaps you’re swamped with work? Perhaps you’re spending extra time with an older relative in need?
I’m not suggesting that you create some kind of elaborate lie, rather, I use something “true enough” as your excuse to spare Vivian’s feelings. Do not turn off your lights. Do not sneak around. You can still be friendly and enjoy having a neighbor you appreciate for more than a passing hello, but be consistent in your new boundaries.
The reason I do not suggest being extremely direct in this case is because you’re trying to reset the relationship, not teach Vivian how to have more reasonable expectations from her friends. Maybe Vivian will meet some friends who like her just as she is, and just because the instant chemistry with you did not pan out as the friendship progressed, that does not mean that her style will not work for the next person. In most cases it’s not appropriate to “teach” another adult how to act. And the truth is, you do bear some of the responsibility for giving Vivian the signal that you were as interested in this new friendship as she was.
Please know I say all of this without judgment as I have succumbed to that seductive chemistry several times in my life only to regret the “instant closeness” I helped foster with my over-enthusiasm. The sooner you get comfortable answering your door and having a quick, friendly conversation before explaining that you have to get back to whatever project you’re working on (or whatever excuse you decide to use), the sooner you will feel a sense of calm again.
Readers: Do you have other ideas for “Suffering From Friendship Regret?” Please let her know in the comments.
Nina is a contributing writer for Tcjewfolk.com, Kveller.com, and Great New Books. Her essays have appeared regularly at Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and have been syndicated in The Times of Israel as well as Jewish newspapers across the country. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. Contact her on Twitter @ninabadzin and on her blog.